Kurt Vonnegut

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"Do you realize that all great literature — Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible, and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" — are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being?" ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Background

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on this day in 1922, to a previously "well off" family that lost all its money in the Great Depression.

His mom thought she'd make a new fortune by writing pulp fiction. She enrolled in evening short-story seminars. Vonnegut said, "She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms.

Humor

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He was youngest child and always desperate to get some attention at the supper table and so he worked hard to be funny.

  • He'd listen studiously to comedians on the radio, and how they made jokes, and then at family dinner time he'd try to imitate them. He later said, "That's what my books are, now that I'm a grownup — mosaics of jokes."
  • All his life he loved slapstick humor. In old age, he told an interviewer that one of the funniest things that can happen in a film is "to have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep." or "when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coat hangers and scarves."
  • When he was on the faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he told his students that they were there learning to play practical jokes. And he said, "All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again."

Authorship

He's wrote Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), Breakfast of Champions (1973), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake (1997).

His novel Cat's Cradle was based on his experiences as a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady. One of the characters, a scientist named Dr. Felix Hoenikker, was based on an absentminded G.E. researcher named Dr. Irving Langmuir, whose personal quirks Vonnegut transcribed right into his book. Vonnegut said: "He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in." Cat's Cradle, published in 1963, earned Kurt Vonnegut his master's thesis in anthropology from the University of Chicago; when he was a graduate student there years before, his original thesis had been rejected, and he'd dropped out of the program. The novel also earned a Hugo Book Award nomination and a cult following.

Harrison Bergeron and the Law of Jante

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The idea that the individual should be valued based only on their contribution to the collective, is one of the most detestable philosophies ever invented. From Harrison Bergeron, Sirens of Titan, Law of Jante, tall poppy, Procrustean bed or Dog in the Manger -- the allegories and lessons throughout time are not positive ones. But still the philosophy exists. And humanity is worse for not crushing it, and all who harbor it, in the name of tolerance.

An interview with himself

Kurt Vonnegut sat down to be interviewed by The Paris Review series four different times over the course of a decade. The interviews were pieced together to be published as one big long composite interview. But before it went to press, Vonnegut asked to edit the manuscript. He ended up rewriting not only some of his answers but the interviewers' questions as well, and so in the end they published an interview with Vonnegut in which he was both the interviewer and the interviewee.

He's introduced like this: "... a veteran and a family man, large-boned, loose-jointed, at ease. He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge gray flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets."

We're told that "he shells the interview with explosive coughs and sneezes, windages of an autumn cold and a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking. His voice is a resonant baritone, Midwestern, wry in its inflections. From time to time he issues the open, alert smile of a man who has seen and reserved within himself almost everything: depression, war, the possibility of violent death, the inanities of corporate public relations, six children, an irregular income, long-delayed recognition."

In the last of the four interviews, Vonnegut's self-edited description reads: "... he moves with the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general, his appearance is tousled: the long curly hair, mustache, and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him.

Wisdom

Kurt Vonnegut once came up with a list of eight rules for writing a short story.

  • Rule number one: "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted." Other rules include "Start as close to the end as possible" and "Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
  • He said: "Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That's the secret of artistic unity. ... If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."
  • And he said, "Make characters want something right away — even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. ... When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do."
  • And he also said, "It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all."

Conclusion

The ironic thing is, for all his wisdom about hate being like cyanide, he spent the last months and years of his life hating and ranting (often irrationally) about George W. Bush. Which is sort of sad commentary and a bit of poignancy about the fragility of us all. Of course that doesn't detract from the value of his other work -- it just shows we all have blind spots, and can all fall into the traps that we pointed out for others.

References