Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut is Now Unstuck in Time, and So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut is not really gone, for as he explained in his brilliant novel Slaughterhouse-Five we become unstuck in time at the moment of death, and able to move back and forth through the moments of our lives. It was at once a metaphor for memory, but also for the incoherent sense of history that we obtain from watching television, or for that matter from a collection of photographs.

Vonnegut also characterized time as akin to the Rocky Mountains in this book, by which he meant that past, present, and future all are set in stone, leaving no room for human agency to influence the course of events. But, he presented this view ironically, linking it to a fatalism that accepted without protest that the end of life in the universe would be due to a technological error committed by an alien race, one that they knew was coming but could not avoid. It was ironic, because the novel was, if anything, a call to action, to change the future, above all by ending war, which he dubbed
the children's crusade. Vonnegut was opposed to fatalism as he was to war, but his art overpowered his rhetoric, and the point was lost on most readers. I don't consider this to be necessarily a bad thing, as his genius was in the creative process, not his politics (which is not to deny that he was an eloquent and persuasive spokesman for the left, and for the human race).

Vonnegut introduced all kinds of amusing and poignant terms and phrases, one being "so it goes," which served as a kind of punctuation mark, so that when he wrote about someone's death, he followed with, "and so it goes," because what else can you say? Vonnegut wrote in a conversational style--you could call it plain talk, even though it was written down, and was considered a kind of stream of consciousness writing. But it really was Vonnegut's literary voice speaking plain, and he had a knack for turning plain speech into poetry.

He is considered one of the great fiction writers of the 20th century, and he was one of the first to transcend the science fiction genre that his early work was rooted in. And in doing so he helped to move science fiction literature into the mainstream.

The first Vonnegut novel I read, back in my early teens, remains one of my favorites--it was a dark comedy about the end of the world entitled Cat's Cradle(which includes a very media ecological bit about blindness to the effects of new technologies, based on the real life experience of his brother who invented cloud seeding and was appalled to learn that it was being used by the military in Vietnam; this novel also goes into one of Vonnegut's great themes, the need for community).

Another of my favorites is the later novel Galapagos which is also about the end of the world, or rather the human race, one of Vonnegut's recurring themes, and presents an excellent statement about evolution not having a particular direction or end in mind, as it turns out that our big brains were actually a mistake that evolution would eventually correct by turning us into seal-like creatures.

I admit to being partial to his early, science fiction themed books, like his first novel Player Piano which is a fiction based on his experiences working for the technology company General Electric in Troy, New York, and I am also fond of The Sirens of Titan in which human history turns out to be a medium of communication by which a stranded alien phones home for spare parts (this very clearly influenced Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy writings).

Vonnegut's characters, especially in the early novels, appear in more than one story, so that there is a sense of a larger universe, not the elaborate worlds of most fantasy and science fiction, just a realistic sense of relationships, and community. This extends through Mother Night (with its odd questioning of the quest for moral certainty) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (with its critique of capitalism and class distinctions). His early run of vaguely interconnected narratives are wrapped up, or more accurately let loose, in Breakfast of Champions (in which Vonnegut himself appears as a character, as he does in several other books).

Vonnegut's essential and powerful humanism also comes through in his early short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House and his early collection of essays, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (which had a great influence on me as an undergraduate at Cornell University). I also loved reading his play entitled Happy Birthday, Wanda June (although I regret that I have never seen it on stage).

Of his later work, Slapstick: Or Lonesome No More! stands out as another end of the line story, narrated by the last president of the United States, who had grouped people together into artificial family relations--again, emphasizing the need for community. Bluebeard satirizes the art world, Jailbird gives us a fictional Watergate conspirator, Hocus Pocus a Vietnam vet and college professor also in trouble with the law, and Deadeye Dick is also about crime and punishment, specifically murder and the neutron bomb.

Vonnegut's last novel is Timequake and, while not one of his best, it plays on the Y2K scare in that a glitch in spacetime leads to a temporal do-over. Vonnegut appears in this novel as well, as does his fictional alter ego, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who pops up in many of these books.

I'm not listing all of the books he published, but I do want to mention Between Time and Timbuktu, Or Prometheus-5, A Space Fantasy which incorporated narrative elements from some of his other work, and I would characterize it as Vonnegut's equivalent, in fiction, to Marshall McLuhan's bestseller, The Medium is the Massage (illustrated by Quentin Fiore and produced by Jerome Agel), although in this instance the Vonnegut publication is actually a teleplay with photographs. I first encountered it as a video on PBS in 1972, and was blown away. Unfortunately, this NET Playhouse production does not appear to be available online or on video, but it can be screened at the Museum of Television and Radio in NY or LA. It is worth the trip! And much better than the film version of Slaughterhouse Five (an attempt to adapt an unadaptable novel).

Time was one of Kurt Vonnegut's great themes, and now he has become unstuck in time, no longer bound by the fourth dimension, free to travel from here to Tralfamadore, or Titan, or Timbuktu. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, and godspeed on your journey. And so it goes.

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