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
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
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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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.