Kurt Vonnegut

My first paying job was at the public library. As a page, I was responsible for the fiction section; I had to reshelve the returned books and generally keep the section neat, as well as accomplishing other tasks as assigned. Being the page of the fiction section, I had hands-on knowledge of the most popular authors in our community.

One of the authors I noticed for his popularity was Kurt Vonnegut. Some libraries and bookstores pigeonhole Vonnegut into science fiction and fantasy, but where I worked he was shelved with general fiction. One of his most popular books my first summer at the library was Breakfast of Champions. It had a bright yellow cover as well as an interesting name, so I checked out the book, took it home, and read it. From that day on, I was a Kurt Vonnegut fan. Until his death in 2007, I confidently said that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite living author. With the death of J. D. Salinger as well, I can no longer identify any writer as my favorite living author.

Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana. He attended Columbia University until he joined the army during World War II. After the war, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, but his academic work was not accepted by the department. Vonnegut became a technical writer for General Electric, working in Schenectady, New York. There he began experimenting with short stories, eventually completing his first novel, Player Piano.

Vonnegut’s style developed over his early writing. He became known for increasingly absurd plots, presented in clear crisp sentences. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is based on his experiences as a prisoner of war held in Dresden, Germany, at the time that the city was firebombed by the Allies. His character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” drifting into the past and the future unpredictably, allowing Vonnegut to tell his story without having to move from event to event in chronological order.

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut imagines what would happen if a scientist discovered a form of water that crystalizes at a higher temperature. (By comparison, consider the differences among coal, graphite, and diamonds, all of which are composed of carbon.) Clearly if this new form of water with its higher freezing temperature was introduced into the world, catastrophic results would follow. Therefore, the world’s only samples of “Ice-nine” must be kept securely… until they are not. Meanwhile, Vonnegut creates a Caribbean religion somewhat akin to Rastafarianism, which gives his narrator a platform to tell his story of earthly catastrophe.

Vonnegut considered himself a freethinker. He had little use for religion, and he considered churches to be artificial families, performing a role also accomplished by volunteer fire companies and Alcoholics Anonymous chapters. Vonnegut once rewrote the Christian Requiem service to communicate his own view of the meaning of life and death.

In one of his last novels, Timequake, Vonnegut again pictures a world rocked by catastrophe, but in this novel meaning is found by characters who say to one another, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do.” Kurt Vonnegut is a character in Timequake and wanders through his own life. His alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is also a character in Timequake.

I wish I could have met Kurt Vonnegut. I wish we could have sat for hours and talked calmly about religion. I wish I could have told him how that message, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do,” fits well with my understanding of the message of the Bible. But Kurt Vonnegut has died, and we will never have that conversation.

So it goes.

J.

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