Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Is Dead -- Long Live Vonnegut

Rather than die the expected death of a lifelong smoker, Kurt Vonnegut succumbed to head injuries from a fall in his NY apartment. He was 84. [Commentary below.]

Voice of America has a nice profile:

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has died at age 84. VOA'S Chris Martin prepared this profile.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with wife, photographer Jill Krementz (2004 file photo)
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with wife, photographer Jill Krementz (2004 file photo)
Kurt Vonnegut emerged as one of the most influential and provocative writers in the United States, during the 1960's. His writing was an ongoing protest against what he felt were the horrors of the 20th Century. He wrote of an unending sequence of disastrous wars, the destruction of the environment and the dehumanization of the individual, in a society dominated by science and technology.

Vonnegut's themes were by no means unique to contemporary literature. It was rather the way he expressed his protest that made his works so forceful and popular. Fantasy, science fiction, humor, a keen sense of the absurd, and despair were the ingredients of his satires. In his fantastic tales, he would show the frustrations of average people with their burdens and boredom.

Kurt Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed pessimist. He believed the egalitarianism of American society was not the result of individuals realizing their opportunities in a "land of opportunity," but more the result of a decrease in opportunities. An example is his novel, "Breakfast of Champions," about a middle-aged American car salesman. The book's message is that hard work, intelligence, and perseverance do not guarantee anything in a changing America. Vonnegut believed the individual was not the controller of his own destiny, but the subject to many uncertainties.

Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the Midwestern United States. His schooling at Cornell University was interrupted when the United States entered World War II. As a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, he witnessed the firebombing of that city. This catastrophe later became the subject of his most powerful novel, "Slaughterhouse Five."

Kurt Vonnegut became a free-lance (independent) writer in 1950 and, two years later, published his first novel, "Player Piano." This futuristic story takes place in a city where the industry has been fully mechanized. The people of the city - aware they are being phased out - revolt and destroy all the machinery. They soon realize they have destroyed the technological devices they depend upon for their existence. Another of Kurt Vonnegut's well-known works is "Cat's Cradle," the story of two families - one black, one white - who struggle to live in an icy, empty environment. Separation and war are the two themes of his novel "Mother Night."

In his novels, Vonnegut's heroes are unexceptional characters. The author's popularity can be linked to his use of ordinary people whose frustrations force them to work together to correct the ills of their society. He saw personal satisfaction as inconceivable in a fragmented world. Vonnegut pleaded, in his surreal way, for an end to the hierarchies of religion, status, money and intelligence that he said divide people and make them adversaries.

Author Kurt Vonnegut became a hero of his culture, because he celebrated human vulnerabilities - something we all can understand. Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday, at age 84.

The Washington Post, Time, The Boston Globe, the BBC, the New York Times, among others, all have articles up about Vonnegut's life and work.

When Slaughterhouse Five (probably Vonnegut's best and most famous work) was published, some reviewers thought that it signaled the death of the American novel. Actual history (the bombing of Dresden) was mixed with science fiction (the hero, Billy Pilgrim, has "come unstuck in time"), and a large dose of social commentary, making many people very uncomfortable. The book is still among the most-banned books in American schools, and a district in North Dakota once burned all copies of the book -- and fired the teacher who taught it.

However, rather than signaling the death of the novel, Vonnegut's work expanded the possibilities. There were many precedents for a non-linear narrative already (mostly European), but Vonnegut's books brought non-linearity into the mainstream, allowing younger authors to explore similar possibilities in their own work. I think it's fair to say that his books, especially the first seven or so (up through
Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye, Blue Monday [1973]), revolutionized the popular novel format in America.

This is from Wikipedia:

These structural experiments were continued in Breakfast of Champions (1973), which included many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina.

"This is a very bad book you're writing," I said to myself.
"I know," I said.
"You're afraid you'll kill yourself the way your mother did," I said.
"I know," I said.

Vonnegut attempted suicide in 1985 and later wrote about this in several essays.

Breakfast of Champions became one of his best sellers. It includes, beyond the author himself, several of Vonnegut's recurring characters. One of them, Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author's character.

More than narrative structure, however, what made Vonnegut extremely popular was the use of humor to deal with horrific ideas and painful observations. He was depressed most of his life, and tried to suicide as mentioned above, but he still found the humor, albeit cynical, in human existence.

Politics also played an important role in his books and life. He wrote many anti-Bush articles for In These Times (a quote posted in his Wikipedia article, referencing his writings on Iraq: "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December" [18]).

He was generally a humanist (he was Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, replacing the author Isaac Asimov in what Vonnegut called "that totally functionless capacity"). But he also held sympathies with some elements of socialism. He made no friends among conservatives with such views.

My first exposure to Vonnegut came in high school when we read Harrison Bergeron, an anti-egalitarian short story that argues against the notion that all people should be equal in abilities and privileges. In the story, those who are stronger are forced to wear weights to keep them equal with others, while those who are smarter have their thoughts disrupted to make them more "normal." The story is a powerful argument against the notion that all people are created equal and should be treated as such. It's also wonderfully anti-authoritarian, which appealed to a young social misfit such as myself.

In college, I began reading all of his novels from Player Piano forward. Vonnegut will always rank as one of my favorite novelists -- and favorite authors. His sharp mind and cynical wit will be sorely missed.

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