Rereading Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who could depict the human condition with paper clips and aliens

One of the world’s foremost fiction writers about the things we struggle to understand, Vonnegut would have been 94 this November.

I began, as we all do, an untrained reader. To me, a good novel was one that was hard to read. At nineteen, reading the long, winding sentences in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! was like getting lost in a mansion with too many rooms. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was an easier read but it made me think maybe the only way to become a writer was to witness, first-hand, something horrific, like a war, and then write about it with a sombreness that would rival a bishop’s.

And then I found, in my church library, a brittle, yellowing paperback of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I’d heard of the book before – how the writer had been a prisoner of war when Dresden was bombed during WWII. I was expecting passage after passage of intimate details of the bombing and fire-storming of the city. After reading the book, I knew exactly what Vonnegut meant when he said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

The mad novels

Slaughterhouse Five is the disjointed story of Billy Pilgrim told by an unreliable narrator. It features a talking paper clip and aliens from an interstellar planet named Tralfamadore. Billy is a twenty-something soldier who’s been through one of the worst wartime experiences, something that has stripped him of all we consider normal. The narrative breaks away in sudden movements and by the end of it, twenty-year-old me was left wondering: why are there aliens in a book considered a classic? What is this Vonnegut really trying to say?

I’ve re-read this book several times over the years, and the answer was right in front of me all along. Bare-bones humility was all that Vonnegut had after his war experiences. Through Slaughterhouse Five, he says that war may be necessary but it doesn’t stop it from being a full-out massacre. In chapter one, he admits the book is “short and jangled…because there’s nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” All in all, the absurd plot twists form an anti-war message that is farcical on the face of it. Vonnegut managed to lick his own elbow with Slaughterhouse Five. I find myself thinking of this book every now and then when I read something phony and realise things aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface.

A scene from "Slaughterhouse Five" the film
A scene from "Slaughterhouse Five" the film

All of Vonnegut’s novels have absurd premises. Cat’s Cradle starts out with the search for a chemical weapon, “ice-nine”, that could freeze the entire planet. Then, we’re introduced to the Bokononism religion, which, its founder admits, is based on lies. Many of the teachings of the religion are in the form of calypsos, like this gem:

“Tiger got to hunt, 
Bird got to fly; 
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, 
Bird got to land; 
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Breakfast of Champions features Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction author, and Dwayne Hoover, one of his deranged readers who takes whatever Trout writes as the literal truth. This leads Hoover to believe he is the only person on the planet with free will and everyone else is a robot. Vonnegut goes all out satirising race, the class system, and everything else that comes his way. And he does it all while still making you laugh.

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

If you read one, or all three, of these novels, it’s easy to peg Kurt Vonnegut as a straightforward science-fiction writer. However, this genre-lising takes a lot away from his work. Sure, he employed various tropes that feel more at home in a sci-fi world, but his short stories see him trying different things. Here’s what Vonnegut had to say about people who called him a sci-fi writer after the publication of his debut novel, Player Piano.

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’…and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

Before and after the publication of Player Piano, Vonnegut went through a tough financial phase. He continued writing what he called “slick fiction” for various magazines, to stay afloat between novels. These stories exhibit the different shades of a writer who was equally adept at writing about Thomas Edison’s dog and “a sickeningly slick love story” for The Ladies’ Home Journal. This versatility allowed him to experiment, putting his short stories in a league of their own. Compact, fast-moving, funny, and brimming with heartfelt emotion in the unlikeliest of places, several of them are both outstanding and must-reads for Vonnegut fans and newbies alike.

The crazy stories

Empathy is a recurring emotion you feel for the characters in Vonnegut’s work. In “Harrison Bergeron”, the narrator tells us that “everybody was finally equal. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” But fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron is indeed different. He’s been arrested for being a genius and an athlete and has escaped jail. People who are slightly better than others are given handicaps. For instance, Harrison’s father has a little mental handicap radio (government-sanctioned) in his ear that transmits ear-splitting sounds every time he takes unfair advantage of his above-average brain. The story has a tragic end for Harrison, but his parents forget it instantly because they aren’t allowed to act upon their thoughts or even think.

A scene from "Harrison Bergeron" the film
A scene from "Harrison Bergeron" the film

In Welcome to the Monkey House, Billy the Poet is on the loose. His aim – to deflower a Hostess at the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor. The narrator tells us this is at a time when the human population of Earth is 17 billion. All birds and bees are extinct. Ethical suicide is encouraged, or else everyone needs to consume ethical birth control pills that make men’s bottom halves feel like “cold iron or balsa-wood”. Women say their bottom halves feel like “wet cotton or stale ginger ale”.

Billy the Poet is a rebel on the run who refuses his pills and intends to “restore a certain amount of innocent pleasure to the world, which is poorer in pleasure than it needs to be”. The Hostess, who is eventually captured by him, resists his worldview at the outset. She fears Billy and company are on drugs, a particular kind she’s been told is the worst of all:

“That drug was so powerful…even a person numb from the waist down would copulate repeatedly and enthusiastically after just one glass. That had to be the answer: The women, and probably the men, too, had been drinking gin.”

The dystopian world Vonnegut creates in both stories is quite similar. Both have social landscapes where everyone is brainwashed into thinking in a particular manner to further the ulterior motives of those in power. Both stories, though written in the 1960s, feel right at home in today’s day and age. Over-population, global warming, lethal politics, and loss of identity are overwhelming us more than ever. It is the mark of a true writer that his work stands the test of time in this way to hold true nearly half a century later. And all of it with a healthy dose of black humour.

All the King’s Horses veers away from dystopia but is no less morbid. Sixteen members of a party crash land on the Asiatic mainland in territory ruled by Pi Ying, a Communist guerrilla chief. Colonel Kelly, his wife, and a pair of twins are part of the American party, the rest of whom are enlisted army men. The story revolves around an edge-of-the-seat game of chess where the wooden chessmen are replaced by the American prisoners. It turns out to be quite literally a game of life and death.

In The Foster Portfolio, a salesman chances upon an unlikely client, Herbert Foster, who breaks his back working two jobs, seven days a week. When the investment salesman takes a look at his portfolio he realises the man is worth close to a million dollars. It’s a charming story about the lure of wealth and a conscious effort to make a living by the sweat of the brow. Writing at a time the American economy was booming, Vonnegut draws up the pitfalls of spending money like water and how some people prefer the simple life.

These two stories, written in the early 1950s, show a different side of Vonnegut’s genius. Those accustomed to his unconventional characters and situations will discover a different side to the writer. These stories might not be as well-known as some of this others, but they elevate our perception of Vonnegut’s versatility. His eccentric, snappy prose is a trip unlike any other, and Doris Lessing calls him “UNIQUE…one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who gives names to the places we know best”.

Vonnegut, who would have been ninety-four this year, lives on not just through his work but also through his famous graphs of the short story as well as rules for writing fiction. But it is the novels and stories that reveal a truly unique writer. As the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders puts it, “…There’s something sacred about reading Slaughterhouse Five…We leave such a book restored, if only briefly, to a proper relation with the truth, reminded of what is what, temporarily undeluded, our better nature set back on its feet.”

I spent Vonnegut’s birthday, November 11, diving into his back catalogue and reminding myself that high literature doesn’t have to be hoity-toity. Even a talking paper clip and a space alien can make complete sense in the mad world we inhabit. As Vonnegut himself said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

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