Kurt Vonnegut

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Kurt Vonnegut

Why it’s daunting: Everybody loves Kurt Vonnegut. No, seriously—everybody. The easiest way to make friends on the Internet is to throw out a line from Cat’s Cradle. (“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God” isn’t a bad conversation-starter.) After Vonnegut died in 2007, The A.V. Club posted an Inventory with a choice selection of some of his best quotes, and the feature quickly became one of the site’s most read and e-mailed articles, remaining startlingly popular years after it was originally published. Vonnegut is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, but even more than that, he’s a pop-culture visionary. He was a grumpy father figure for generations of college students and a moral philosopher for a complex and contradictory age, but never seemed too stuffed full of his own importance to be in on the joke. He had a cameo in a Rodney Dangerfield movie, for gosh sakes.

But all that reputation is bound to be a little imposing, no matter how willing Vonnegut was to poke holes in himself. Artists with such vaunted reputations can be off-putting, especially once they’ve died and their body of work is canonized in the public eye. While Vonnegut strove for accessibility, famously eschewing semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing,” it’s still entirely reasonable that the uninitiated might want some guidance before diving in. 

Possible gateway: Slaughterhouse-Five

Why: Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest novel. And not only is it a terrific book in its own right, it’s also a key piece in contextualizing the rest of Vonnegut’s writing. It’s not his first novel (Player Piano), and it does feature cameos from characters in earlier stories, like Eliot Rosewater, the protagonist of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Howard Campbell from Mother Night, and Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego. But in Vonnegut’s writing, plot is never of primary importance, and characters’ histories change to fit the needs of whatever storyline they currently inhabit. When former main or secondary figures appear in novels beyond their debut, it’s less an effort to create a consistent world than to express a consistent worldview. These people all belong together, in a universe where cruel chance is the only true constant. 

From a technical standpoint, Slaughterhouse is surprisingly complex, blending surreal vignettes with harsh realism and exploring the life of its main character through metaphysical, non-consecutive third- and first-person narration. That may sound like a wickedly complex piece of postmodern gamemanship, the sort of playful, mind-bending trickery that Charlie Kaufman engages in on a regular basis. It also doesn’t sound particularly inviting. Most of Vonnegut’s novels follow more traditional paths than this one, and sticking a newbie with the narrative equivalent of a Rubik’s cube sounds like the easiest way to ensure that all but a select few give up at the start, never to return.

In practice, though, Slaughterhouse is, like all Vonnegut’s best writing, extremely straightforward, even when its ideas are hard to pin down. The novel’s first chapter is Vonnegut himself telling readers his reasons for writing this book, and why it took him so long into his career to finish it. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s attempt to describe one of the formative experiences of his life, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945, which destroyed the city and killed roughly 25,000 people. The book wasn’t published until 1969, prompting Vonnegut to explain, in his usual self-deprecating tone, the difficulties in trying to attach a work of fiction to such an immense, grotesque tragedy. This is a book about trying and failing to make sense of things, which is impossible, since “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

And if that isn’t enough, the opening of the second chapter lays it all out neatly and succinctly: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” That’s all the explanation we get for what follows, but it’s all that’s really necessary. Billy, a hapless fool who becomes a German prisoner of war in World War II without ever firing a shot, bounces semi-randomly through scenes from every point of his life. First he’s trudging through the wilderness, starving and despised. Next, he’s a successful optometrist with an overweight wife and cold feet. Next, he’s dead, floating in a humming purple haze. Next, he’s been kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, an absurdly designed alien race who take Billy back to their planet to be caged in a zoo and mated with the famous movie star Montana Wildhack. Next, he’s back to the war. And so on. 

Few of these sections last long, but while scenes don’t always make consecutive sense, Slaughterhouse never feels disjointed or jarring, except when that’s the intended effect. The Tralfamadorians give Billy some perspective on his temporal uncertainty, since all time happens at once for them, and “free will” is a ridiculous irrelevance invented by humans. Their novels are, much like this one, collections of anecdotes that combine to form a beautiful whole. It’s hard to say whether Slaughterhouse-Five is beautiful, although it has moments of beauty. Billy’s time in the war, which builds finally to the Dresden attack, is the closest thing the novel has to a consistent story arc, and in this section, the book—and much of the rest of Vonnegut’s work—finds its core. Vonnegut was a humanist whose brutal pragmatism can often look like nihilistic despair. But his clear agony and rage over the destruction of the war, over the way humans build machines to kill each other, give the novel’s black comedy and fatalism a heartbreaking honesty. It’s the book of a man who spent his whole life trying desperately to give up on the world, but like Lot’s wife, could never stop himself from looking back. 

Next steps: Cat’s Cradle is another one of Vonnegut’s greatest novels, and in some respects, it’s even more accessible than Slaughterhouse-Five. For one thing, it has an actual plot, a mélange of science fiction, political satire, and doom-laden tomfoolery. John, the narrator, becomes enmeshed in the lives of the grown-up children of Felix Hoenikker, a (fictional) co-creator of the atomic bomb. Through the Hoenikkers, John learns of the existence of ice-nine, a new way of freezing water that could, in the wrong hands, destroy the world. Much of the story takes place on the island of San Lorenzo, home of the mad prophet Bokonon and his gentle cult, Bokononism. In Cradle, Vonnegut pokes holes in some of his favorite targets, including scientists (whose infatuation with knowledge and puzzles protects them from ever grasping the consequences of their actions) and the political leaders who attempt to exploit those scientists for their own ends. With the Book Of Bokonon, Vonnegut created the perfect fictional religion, one that mocked the absurdities of belief while embracing its necessity. It’s all foma (harmless untruths), but life is so unhinged, why begrudge a man a few comforting lies?

Arguably, Cradle would make just as effective an introduction to Vonnegut as Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s linear, and without the authorial interjections that occasionally pop up in the other book. But Cradle is the sort of joke that really works best for readers who are just starting to question the authority figures in their lives. Its tone can sometimes come across as snide, and while the book stands well on its own, knowing a bit more about the anger that underlies the gags helps to give the novel added bite. 

There’s also Breakfast Of Champions, in which Vonnegut takes the authorial commentary of Slaughterhouse-Five to greater heights by inserting illustrations and, ultimately, himself into the book. Vonnegut’s best work often happened when he was able to marry fiction with painful fact, and Breakfast, even more than Slaughterhouse, is the purest example of this. The novel’s constant breakdown of human beings as machines operating on chemicals, need, and the litany of irrelevant information create a detachment from the characters, which somehow makes their plights all the more moving. A man goes insane because of bad wiring, hurts some people, and not much else. And yet in this minor catastrophe, Vonnegut shows the value of basic decency, and the way art can transcend simplicity to express wonderful truths. It’s a novel that shouldn’t work, but does, and it’s essential to understanding Vonnegut’s worldview.

Beyond that, every Vonnegut novel is worth reading at least once, although some are definitely better than others. Mother Night is excellent, another take on the aftermath of World War II, this time from the perspective of a Nazi propagandist who was actually an American spy. Vonnegut's short-story and essay collections, including Welcome To The Monkey House and Palm Sunday, are worth checking out, although the posthumous collections are extremely hit-or-miss. 

Then there’s Slapstick, Vonnegut’s follow-up to Breakfast Of Champions. The author was famously disparaging of the book, giving it a “D” when he graded his books individually in Palm Sunday. It’s a hard novel to read, because it’s one of the few times in which Vonnegut’s depression and bleak outlook overwhelm the whimsy of his creations. There are jokes here, but many of them fall flat, unable to bear the weight of the grief they’re called on to support. As he explains in the introduction, Vonnegut wrote in the book partly in response to his sister’s death, which may be why it’s so achingly sad. But while Vonnegut wasn’t happy with the end result, Slapstick remains a wrenching, memorable read, haunting in its resigned disillusionment.

Where not to start: Timequake was Vonnegut’s final novel. It isn’t bad, and definitely worth picking up eventually, but it isn’t really strong enough to stand on its own. 

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