Born: Indianapolis, Indiana; November 11, 1922
Died: New York, New York; April 11, 2007
Also known as: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Principal Long Fiction
Player Piano, 1952
The Sirens of Titan, 1959
Mother Night, 1961
Cat’s Cradle, 1963
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine, 1965
Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, 1969
Breakfast of Champions: Or, Goodbye Blue Monday, 1973
Slapstick: Or, Lonesome No More!, 1976
Deadeye Dick, 1982
Hocus Pocus, 1990
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, 1999 (novella)
Other Literary Forms
Although known primarily for his novels, Kurt Vonnegut (VON-uh-guht) also wrote for Broadway and television and published a children’s book and several books of essays.
Critical acclaim eluded Kurt Vonnegut until Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969. An immediate best seller, it earned for the author respect from critics who had previously dismissed him as a mediocre science-fiction writer. Over the course of his career, Vonnegut was honored as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University, as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and as the Distinguished Professor of English Prose at the City University of New York. Through his insightful and sympathetic treatment of the psychologically and morally crippled victims of the modern world, Vonnegut earned a reputation as one of the greatest humanist writers of his time.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1922. Both the location and the era of his birth helped shape his distinctive worldview. Growing up in the American heartland in the calm interval between the world wars, Vonnegut had a brief vision of a middle-class world that embraced the values of honesty, decency, and human dignity. For Vonnegut, this was the world as it should be, a world unravaged by violence and war, a world untouched by technology. This period of childhood happiness was, however, merely the calm before the storm in a life that would be rocked by a series of personal and national disasters: the suicide of his mother on Mother’s Day; his prisoner-of-war experience in World War II; the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law; the dissolution of his first marriage; the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima; the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War; the death of his first wife, with whom he had maintained a close friendship; and the death of his brother Bernard. All the heartaches of his family and his nation reverberate through Vonnegut’s work, while the artist, through his fiction, stands as advocate for a saner, calmer world.
During the years of the Great Depression, Vonnegut’s family suffered emotional and financial setbacks. When Vonnegut entered Cornell University in 1940, his father forbade him to study the arts and chose instead for his son a career in science, which he believed would guarantee job security. In 1943 Vonnegut left Cornell to enlist in the U.S. Army, despite his own public opposition to the war. Less than one year later, he was captured by the Germans and, in 1945, survived one of the greatest massacres of the war, the Allied firebombing of Dresden. This horror pursued Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until he worked through the pain by writing Slaughterhouse-Five.
After the war, Vonnegut married and began studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago. After three years, he left college and took a job as a publicist with General Electric (GE), where his brother worked as a physicist. Vonnegut’s background in science and the disillusionment he experienced at GE influenced his first two novels, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, both parables of dehumanization in a technological society.
Between 1952 and 1998, Vonnegut wrote more than a dozen novels, numerous essays, a Broadway play, and a musical work, Requiem, that was performed by the Buffalo Symphony. He and Joe Petro III had a showing of twenty-six of their silk-screen prints in Denver in 1996. Despite his varied artistic talents, however, Vonnegut has always been known primarily for his fiction. In 1978, Vonnegut remarried, and he and his wife, Jill Krementz, settled in New York City. Vonnegut lived in New York until his death in 2007 at the age of eighty-four.
In his novels, Kurt Vonnegut coaxes the reader toward greater sympathy for humanity and deeper understanding of the human condition. His genre is satire—sometimes biting, sometimes tender, always funny. His arena is as expansive as the whole universe and as tiny as a single human soul. Part philosopher, part poet, Vonnegut, in his fictive world, tackles the core problem of modern life: How can the individual maintain dignity and exercise free will in a world overrun by death and destruction, a world in which both science and religion are powerless to provide solutions? The reader will find no ready answers in Vonnegut, only a friendly guide along the questioning path.
Vonnegut himself behaved with a commendable sense of responsibility, dignity, and decency: He labored long to show humankind its ailments and to wake it to the work it has to do. He admitted to having lived comfortably while many of the world’s population suffered, but in quoting the words of American socialist Eugene Debs in his dedication to Hocus Pocus, he seems to define the position that he himself took as human being and as author and public figure for half of the twentieth century: “While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” He spoke out in many forums for many causes and for all of humankind, and his has been a wide audience.
Ilium, New York, sometime in the near future, provides the setting for Vonnegut’s first dystopian novel, Player Piano. Ilium is a divided city. On one side of the river live the important people, the engineers and managers who program and operate the computers and machines that run people’s lives. On the other side of the river, Homestead, live the downtrodden inhabitants of the city, those locked into menial, dehumanizing jobs assigned to them by the central computer.
Paul Proteus, the protagonist, is the brilliant young manager of the Ilium Works, a man being groomed for even greater success. Just as Ilium is a divided city, however, so is Paul divided about his life and his future. Paul suffers a growing discontent with his job at the Ilium Works, where people have been replaced by machines and machines are supervised by computers. Outwardly, Paul has no reason for worry or doubt. He has the best job and the most beautiful wife in Ilium, he is being considered for the highest post in his company, and he is climbing the ladder of success. Nevertheless, Paul’s uneasiness increases. At first he seeks escape, settling on a farm in an attempt to get back to nature and free himself from his automatic life. He finds, however, that he has become an automaton, completely out of touch with the natural world, and his attempt at escape fails.
Finally, Paul is drawn to the other side of the river. His sympathy for the dehumanized masses and his acknowledgment of complicity in their plight drive Paul to join the masses in armed revolution. The fighters take to the streets, frantically and indiscriminately destroying all machines. The revolution fails, leaving Paul disillusioned and defeated, realizing that he has been manipulated by leaders on both sides of the conflict. Now he must surrender and face execution.
Paul’s manipulation, first by those who would replace people with machines and then by those who would destroy the machines, is symbolized by the “player piano” of the title. The simplest of machines, the player piano creates its music without the aid of human beings, neatly rendering the skilled musician obsolete. Paul is entranced by the music of the player piano, in his fascination manipulated by the machine just as it manipulates its ivory keys.
The most striking symbol of the story, however, is the small black cat that Paul befriends as it wanders aimlessly through the Ilium Works. The cat, symbol of all that is natural and pure, despises the monstrous factory machines. The doomed animal is helplessly sucked into an automated sweeper, which spits it down a chute and ejects it outside the factory. Miraculously, it survives, but as Paul races to its rescue, the cat is roasted on the factory’s electric fence, symbolizing humanity’s destruction by the forces of technology. With characteristic Vonnegut irony, however, Player Piano ends on an affirmative note. Although the price of escape is its life, the cat does escape the Ilium Works. Near the end of the novel, Paul sees beautiful flowers growing outside the factory—flowers rooted in cat excrement, signifying ultimate rebirth and a glimmer of hope for Paul and his world.
In his third novel, Mother Night, Vonnegut peers even more deeply into the human soul, exploring the roots of human alienation, probing an individual’s search for his “real” identity, and uncovering the thin veil that separates reality from illusion. The story is told as the memoir of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a self-proclaimed “citizen of nowhere.” A successful writer and producer of medieval romance plays, Campbell sees himself as a sensitive artiste. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be recruited by Major Frank Wirtanen to be an American double agent posing as a Nazi radio propagandist in Germany. Secretly, Campbell sends coded American messages in his propaganda broadcasts, but he does not understand the code and never comprehends the messages he transmits. Still unaware, he even transmits the news of his beloved wife’s death.
Publicly, Campbell is reviled as a traitorous Nazi hatemonger, but he does not mind because he enjoys being on the radio. Eventually, however, he begins to lose touch with his “real” self. Is he the sensitive artist, the cruel Nazi, or the American patriot? Like Paul Proteus, Campbell allows himself to be manipulated by those around him. With no will or identity of his own, Campbell is easy prey for those who would use him for their own ends.
Two of Campbell’s manipulators are his postwar friend George Kraft and his sister-in-law Resi, who poses as Campbell’s long-lost wife, Helga. George and Resi are actually Russian spies plotting to capture Campbell and transport him to Russia. They abandon this plan, however, when they realize their love for Campbell, and they finally attempt to escape to freedom with him. Before the three can flee together, however, the Russians are arrested by American agents. Campbell is arrested as well but is soon freed by his friend Frank Wirtanen.
Gripped by existential fear at finding himself a free man, Campbell appeals to a Jewish couple in his apartment building, a doctor and his mother, both survivors of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Campbell begs to be tried for his crimes against the Jews and soon finds himself awaiting trial in a Jerusalem prison. Before Campbell goes to trial, Frank Wirtanen sends a letter on his behalf, explaining how he had recruited Campbell and honoring him as an American patriot. Campbell, however, can never be a truly free man until he purges his conscience. Upon his release from prison, he is nauseated by the prospect of his freedom, knowing that he is one of the many people “who served evil too openly and good too secretly.” In his failure to resist evil and his openness to manipulation by others, Campbell had given up his free will and lost his ability to choose. Coming to this realization, he finally asserts his will to choose and ironically chooses to die, vowing to hang himself “for crimes against himself.”
Equally dark is Vonnegut’s fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle. In addition to its broad parody of science and religion, Cat’s Cradle expands on Vonnegut’s earlier themes of the dangerous misuse of science and technology, human beings’ moral responsibility in an immoral world, and the importance of distinguishing reality from illusion. The parodic tone is set in the very first line, “Call me Jonah,” bringing to mind the Old Testament book of Jonah. Like that Jonah, this protagonist (really named John) faithfully pursues God’s directives but never truly comprehends the order behind God’s plan. Continuing the parody, John encounters the Bokononist religion, whose bible, The Books of Bokonon, proclaims in its first line, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies,” an obvious inversion of the Johannine maxim “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). In the world John inhabits, the only real freedom is the ultimate freedom— death.
John is writing a book, “The Day the World Ended,” an account of the bombing of Hiroshima. His obsession with the destruction of Hiroshima foreshadows his involvement in the eventual destruction of the world by “ice-nine,” a substance that converts liquid into frozen crystals. In Cat’s Cradle, the atomic bomb and ice-nine are both the doomsday toys of an amoral scientist, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker pursues his work so intensely that he has little time for his three children, who grow up to be emotionally warped and twisted Products of Science. Hoenikker’s only legacy to his children is the ice-nine he was brewing in the kitchen before his sudden death on Christmas Eve. After their father’s death, the three children—Angela, Frank, and Newt—divide the ice-nine among themselves, knowing that it is their ticket to a better future. Newt, a midget, barters his ice-nine for an affair with a Russian ballerina. The homely Angela uses her portion to buy herself a husband. Frank gives his to Miguel “Papa” Monzano, dictator of the Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo, in exchange for the title of general and the hand of Monzano’s beautiful adopted daughter, Mona.
Pursuing information on the Hoenikker family, John finds himself in San Lorenzo, where he is introduced to Bokononism. The people of San Lorenzo are desperately poor, for the soil of the island is as unproductive as the Sahara. The island’s teeming, malnourished masses find their only comfort in Bokononism, which urges them to love and console one another. John finds that, ironically, the religion started as a game by the island’s founders. Knowing no way to lift the country from its destitution, they decided to give the people hope by inventing a religion based on foma, or comforting lies. The religion encouraged people to find strength in their karass, groups of people with whom they are joined to do God’s mysterious will. To strengthen the faith of the people, Bokononism was outlawed, its founder banished on pain of death. As the people’s faith grew, so did their happiness and their dependence on foma, until all the inhabitants of the island were “employed full time as actors in a play.” For the inhabitants of San Lorenzo, illusion had become reality.
Soon after his arrival on the island, John finds that Papa Monzano is critically ill; it is expected that “General” Frank Hoenikker will succeed Papa and take the beautiful Mona as his bride. Secretly, however, Frank has no desire to rule the island or to marry Mona. He is a simpering mass of insecurities, hiding behind his fake title. Frank’s life, like everything around him, has been a lie: He has bought a false sense of dignity, which he wears like a military uniform, but inside he is gripped with fear, the same fear that pulses through the veins of the dying dictator. Papa and Frank become symbols for all people, running scared and grasping at false comforts as they confront brutal reality. Faced with the horror of an agonizing death, Papa clutches his vial of ice-nine, his last illusion of security and power. Uttering the desperate cry, “Now I will destroy the whole world,” he swallows the poison and turns himself into an ice-blue frozen statue. Papa’s power proves illusory, however, as John and the Hoenikker children clean up the mess and seal off Papa’s bedroom.
John, Frank, Angela, and Newt inform the staff that Papa is “feeling much better” and go downstairs to watch a military celebration. Despite their success at covering up Papa’s death and hiding their secret, John and the Hoenikker children sense impending doom. As all the islanders watch the military air show, a bomber careens out of control and bursts into flames, setting off a massive explosion and landslide. As his castle disintegrates, Papa Monzano’s body is propelled from the bedroom closet and plunges into the waiting sea, infecting all with ice-nine.
As the story ends, only John, Newt, and Bokonon remain, awaiting their imminent death. John recalls Angela’s heroic end, remembering how she had clutched her clarinet bravely and played in the face of death, music mocking terror. John dreams of climbing the highest mountain and planting some magnificent symbol. As his heart swells with the vision of being the last man on the highest mountain, Newt mocks him and brings him back to earth. The story concludes with the last verse of The Books of Bokonon, in which Bokonon mourns human stupidity, thumbs his nose at God, and kills himself with ice-nine.
Like many of Vonnegut’s satirical writings, Cat’s Cradle functions as a wake-up call for humanity. For Vonnegut, heroism is not a dream; dignity is not an illusion. Still, he understands all too well the fear that grips an individual on the brink of action, the torpor that invades the soul. In his frustration, all the artist can do is plod on, calling out his warnings as he goes.
Vonnegut’s efforts to touch the soul of humanity are most fully realized in his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, his most moving and brilliant work. Incorporating all of Vonnegut’s common themes—the nature of reality and illusion, the question of free will and determinism, the horror of humankind’s cruelty to itself, the vision of life as an ironic construct—Slaughterhouse-Five produces “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.” This often misunderstood novel leads the reader on a time-warped journey, as popular films say, “to hell and back.” Emotionally suffocated by his experience in World War II, Vonnegut waited twenty-three years to tell the story of his capture by the Germans and his survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, the calculated annihilation of a quarter of a million refugees and civilians in an unguarded city.
As befits a tale of such distorted experience, Slaughterhouse-Five breaks all novelistic conventions. The story is divided into ten sections spanning the years from 1944 to 1968. Opening with a simple, first-person narrative, Vonnegut describes his return to Dresden in 1967. He recounts his life after the war, discusses his wife and children, and relives a conversation with his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, in which he reveals why Slaughter-house-Five is subtitled The Children’s Crusade. In the original Children’s Crusade of 1213, Catholic monks raised a volunteer army of thirty thousand children who were intent on traveling to Palestine but instead were sent to North Africa to be sold as slaves. In the end, half the children drowned en route and the others were sold. For Vonnegut, this incident provides the perfect metaphor for all wars: hopeless ventures fought by deluded children. Thus Vonnegut prepares the reader for this personal statement about the tragedy of war. Nevertheless, the reader remains unprepared for the narrative shape of the tale.
Breaking from his reverie, Vonnegut reads from a Gideon Bible the story of Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt for looking back on Sodom and Gomorrah. To Vonnegut, her reaction was tender, instinctively human, looking back on all those lives that had touched hers, and he adopts Lot’s wife as a metaphor for his narrative stance. Slaughterhouse-Five will be a tale told by a “pillar of salt.” Vonnegut assumes the role of a masked narrator, a disinterested party, allowing himself the aesthetic distance he needs to continue his painful journey. When the reader turns to chapter 2, however, another surprise appears, as chapter 2 begins, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
To increase his emotional distance from the story, Vonnegut, the masked narrator, tells not his own story but the story of pathetic Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s mythical fellow soldier. Through time travel over which he has no control, Billy is forced to relive the chapters of his life in seemingly random order. For Billy, as for Vonnegut, his war chronology is too unsettling to confront head-on. Instead of assimilating his life experiences, Billy unconsciously tries to escape the memory of them by bouncing back and forth in time from one experience to another. Not until the end of the tale can he face the crucial moment, the horror of Dresden.
The reader first sees Billy as a forty-six-year-old retired optometrist living in Ilium, New York. Billy’s daughter, Barbara, thinks that he has lost his mind. Billy has given up interest in business and devotes all of his energies to telling the world about his travels to the planet Tralfamadore. Two years earlier, Billy had been captured by aliens from Tralfamadore and had spent six months on their planet. Billy’s belief in Tralfamadorian philosophy is the great comfort of his life, and he is eager to share this philosophy with the world. The aliens taught Billy, the optometrist, a better way to “see.” On Tralfamadore, time is not linear; all moments are structured and permanent, and death is merely one moment out of many moments in a person’s life. The Tralfamadorians do not mourn the dead, for even though a person may be dead in one moment, he or she is alive and happy in many others. The Tralfamadorians respond to life’s temporary bad moments with a verbal shrug, “So it goes.” Their world is a world without free will, without human responsibility, without human sorrow. On an intellectual level, Billy hungrily embraces their philosophy, yet deep inside him (as inside Vonnegut) stirs the need to reconstruct his life, to reconcile his past. So, armed with Tralfamadorian detachment, Billy steps back in time to where it all began.
It is 1944, and Billy, a night student at the Ilium School of Optometry, is drafted into action in World War II. No soldier is more unsuited to war than is Billy. Timid and friendless, he is a chaplain’s assistant, a hapless soul with a “meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.” Billy’s marching companion is Roland Weary, a savage young man even by military standards. Weary’s father collects ancient instruments of torture, and Weary regales Billy with gruesome tales of cruelty, giving the gentle boy an unwanted view of a monstrous world. Weary, a callous, stupid killing machine, is the natural result of humanity’s barbarity. Although physically robust, he is morally depleted, a symbol of the spiritually bankrupt world into which poor Billy has been thrust. Billy—kind, sensitive, tenderhearted—has no natural defenses against the barbarity that surrounds him, so he becomes unstuck in time.
After a brief respite of time travel, Billy returns to the war. He and Weary have been captured behind German lines, taken prisoner by two toothless old men and two young boys. The Germans are accompanied by a guard dog, a female German shepherd named Princess who had been stolen from a farmer. Princess and Billy are confused and shivering from the cold. Of the whole motley group, only the barbarous Weary belongs at war. Billy, Princess, the old men, and the young boys symbolize helpless humanity in the grip of military madness.
Billy and his fellow prisoners, including Vonnegut and Bernard V. O’Hare, are taken to a prisoner-of-war camp before their transport to Dresden. As Billy recalls these moments of his life, he is moved to time-travel many times. He flashes forward to 1948, when, emotionally shattered by his war experience, he checks himself into a veterans’ hospital for mental patients. Here the reader is introduced to Valencia Merble, Billy’s unlovely fiancé, and Eliot Rosewater, his fellow mental patient. In the hospital, Eliot and Billy devour the science-fiction novels of author Kilgore Trout. They are drawn to Trout’s work for the same reason Billy is drawn to the philosophy of Tralfamadore: Human experience on Earth has been too disturbing; life seems meaningless. Escaping to the world of science fiction relieves the pressure, enabling Eliot and Billy to “reinvent” themselves in a kinder universe.
Before Billy returns to his war story, he again relives his adventures on the planet Tralfamadore, where he spends six months in the Tralfamadore Zoo, displayed in a glass cage. Here Billy learns of his own death in 1976. He will be murdered by Paul Lazarro, a former inmate in the prisoner-of-war camp. The maniacal Lazarro, incorrectly blaming Billy for the death of Roland Weary, has plotted revenge since 1944. Naturally, Billy’s innocence makes his meaningless death doubly absurd. At this time, Billy also learns of the eventual destruction of Earth by the Tralfamadorians. While testing a new rocket fuel for their spacecraft, they accidentally blow up the universe. “So it goes.”
When Billy returns to his war story, he and his fellow American soldiers are in Dresden, working in a factory producing vitamin syrup for pregnant women. Soon, however, there will be no pregnant women in Dresden. The American prisoners of war are quartered underground in a former pig butchery—slaughterhouse number five. On the night of February 13, 1945, Billy (and Vonnegut) nestles safely in the shelter while the city is flattened by British and American firebombs. The next morning, the prisoners go aboveground and find the city as lifeless as the surface of the moon. Only the one hundred American prisoners and their guards had survived.
In chapter 10, Vonnegut himself returns as narrator. It is 1968. In the intervening years, Billy has survived an airplane crash in which all of his fellow passengers died. Valencia, frantically hurrying to see Billy in the hospital, has died of accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., have been assassinated. The Vietnam War is raging.
Finally, Vonnegut takes the reader back to Dresden. He and Billy are there, where the prisoners of war are digging for bodies, mining for corpses. Billy’s digging companion dies of the dry heaves, unable to face the slaughter. Billy’s friend Edgar Derby is executed for stealing a teapot. When the corpse mines are closed down, Billy, Vonnegut, and their companions are locked up in the suburbs to await the end of the war. When the war is over, the freed soldiers wander out into the street. The trees are blooming and the birds are singing; springtime has finally arrived for Kurt Vonnegut.
Looking back on the novel, the reader realizes that Billy’s time travels have been more than simply a coping device; they provide a learning tool as well. The jumbled events to which Vonnegut subjects Billy are not random and meaningless. Even if Billy remains blankly ignorant of the connections between events in his life, both the reader and the author learn about emotional survival in the modern world. For Vonnegut, who called himself “the canary in the coal mine,” Billy’s story is a parable and a warning to all humankind: a warning that men and women must resist the temptation to abandon their free will, as Billy had, and an exhortation to keep one’s dignity in the face of modern dehumanization.
That Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of survival may seem contradictory or ironic, but that is always Vonnegut’s approach. It would be hard for the reader to imagine more death than is witnessed here—the slaughter in Dresden and the deaths of Billy, his wife, his father, and assorted soldiers, all culminating in the foretelling of the destruction of the universe by the Tralfamadorians—yet the reader comes to understand that everything about Vonnegut’s tale is ironic. Edgar Derby is executed, amid the Dresden corpse mines, for stealing a teapot; Billy, sitting in a slaughterhouse, is saved from destruction. No wonder Billy sees himself as the plaything of uncontrollable forces. Vonnegut knows better, however. Billy, comfortably numbed by Tralfamadorian philosophy, never reinvents himself—but Vonnegut does. Writing this book enabled the author to face his past, his present, and his future. In fact, after writing Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut proclaimed that he would never need to write another book. Slaughterhouse-Five embodied for Vonnegut the spirit of the phoenix: his soul, through his art, rising from the ashes.
After the spiritual and psychological rejuvenation wrought by Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut became a totally unfettered artist in his next two books, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick. In Breakfast of Champions, he sets all of his characters free, disdaining his role as puppeteer. Admitting that, in English poet John Keats’s words, he had been “half in love with easeful Death,” he asserts that he has rid himself of this dangerous fascination. In Slapstick, he becomes frankly autobiographical, abandoning his aesthetic distance, eschewing all masks, facing his uncertain future and painful past with calm equanimity.
In Galápagos, which Vonnegut himself called his best novel, the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout, son of Kilgore Trout, calmly tells the story of humankind from 1986 to a point one million years in the future. He tells of the end of humankind as known by its “big-brained” twentieth century readers and of the new Adam and Eves and their new Eden. Satirist and atheist that he is, Vonnegut idealizes no part of or party to his story. Knowledge is still the poisoned apple, but naturalist Charles Darwin, not God, is the featured figure of this final record of human life as known to its recorder.
Leon Trout died in the construction of the luxury liner the Bahia de Darwin, the launching of which is advertised as “the nature cruise of the century.” Worldwide crises, however, cause all but a paltry few to withdraw their names from the list of passengers and crew. The cruise itself is begun by accident, and Mary Hepburn, not the figurehead captain, Adolf von Kleist, guides it to its destination. This unaware Adam and sterile-but-godlike Eve, with six Kanka-bono girls “from the Stone Age,” begin the new race according to Darwin’s (and God’s?) dictum: Having eaten of the rotten apple, humankind, with its big, self-destructive brain, is no longer fit to survive; it is a matter of shrink and swim or die. Humankind thus becomes small-brained fisherkind as witnessed by the curious ghost of Leon Trout—who can now, having so witnessed, travel through the blue tunnel into the Afterlife.
Satirist, moralist, and spokesperson for humankind that he is, Vonnegut, like Jonathan Swift before him, offers in Galápagos his modest proposal to a humankind bent on its own destruction. He also offers as epigraph to this tome the words of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Hocus Pocus is perhaps Vonnegut’s grimmest and most powerful indictment of Americans and American life, indicative of why fifteen years later he would title a collection of essays A Man Without a Country (2005). The novel is set in 2001, enabling Vonnegut a decade earlier to project his vision of what the United States would soon become. What he sees is revealed by his first-person narrator, his typical war veteran—this time a veteran of the Vietnam War, fittingly for this novel, America’s most humiliating military venture. The narrator is presented as the last person to leave by helicopter from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the experience enables him to emerge from this personal underground a changed man, convinced that all pro-war propaganda is “hocus pocus,” of which he was an admitted master as a military spokesman himself, and now dedicated to trying to tell the truth, without self-serving deception.
What the United States has become in the near future is a schizophrenic, disintegrating world, symbolized both by the college for the wealthy but learning disabled where the narrator finds postwar employment and by the prison for impoverished and uneducated minorities directly across a lake from the college. The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstituted racial segregation, at least in prisons, and while the number of learning-disabled wealthy students has remained a constant at three hundred, the prison population has grown constantly, to ten thousand. Also, the United States is basically under absentee ownership, having been sold bit by bit to foreign nations and individuals by wealthy Americans who “take the money and run,” unwilling to be responsible for the country’s future. Race- and class-based uprisings are prevalent, including in the South Bronx, and gasoline is so scarce and expensive that it is to be found only in semisecret locations.
In his role as teacher of physics, the narrator attempts to expose the overweening pride and abysmal ignorance that have generated much of the disintegration of America, both represented by the failed perpetual-motion machine created by the college’s founder and prominently placed in the foyer of the college library, proof of blind faith in technological solutions by humans who are, in the words of the narrator’s dead war buddy, “1,000 times dumber and meaner than they think they are.” The narrator’s efforts only get him fired as a college teacher, however, with the firing orchestrated by a college trustee who is a conservative television talk-show host and whose daughter used the technology of voice recording to take the narrator’s statements out of context and thereby convict him of anti-American teaching. As the narrator notes, a history professor at the college says much worse, but only about the distant past, whereas the narrator, Eugene Debs Hartke (aptly named), talks about America’s present inequalities, injustices, and delusional destructiveness.
After he is fired, Hartke is hired by the prison, the director of which is a Hiroshima survivor who was saved from incineration by mere chance when he went into a ditch to retrieve a ball at the time the explosion occurred—a reflection of Vonnegut’s belief that time and chance are the prime movers of the universe. Inevitably, given the race- and class-divided world, a prison break occurs, and the nonwhite prisoners (who have had nothing to do in prison except watch television reruns) attack the college and kill the faculty and staff who are present (the students are away on vacation). The prisoners are themselves killed when enough American military forces finally arrive from the Bronx and other intra-country battlefronts to address the prison break. Hartke is then arrested, accused of being the ringleader of the prison break, because he is Caucasian and educated—it is assumed that no members of a minority group could have planned the event. He is imprisoned, from which location and viewpoint he putatively authors the novel.
Unlike in Galápagos and Bluebeard, there is very little optimism in Hocus Pocus, aside from the narrator’s humane insight and understanding. The novel conveys Vonnegut’s conviction that humans will ultimately destroy themselves, probably sooner than they think, given their arrogance and ignorance and self-deception—their hocus pocus. After Timequake was published, Vonnegut admitted that he had struggled mightily in writing one more novel after Hocus Pocus, and one reason was probably that he subconsciously realized that he said it all in Hocus Pocus and said it incredibly well. Hocus Pocus is the powerful culmination of Vonnegut’s fiction.
In Timequake Vonnegut has humankind, because of a glitch in time, replay the years 1991 to 2001 “on automatic pilot.” He speaks as failed author of a ten-year project, Timequake One. Kilgore Trout, whom he personally identifies as his alter ego and as look-alike to his father, plays a crucial role in this novel. Vonnegut reprises his authorial roles as science-fiction writer, fiction writer, autobiographer, and spokesman for humankind.
Vonnegut’s fictional story shows characters living and dying, living and dying again, and then waking and reeling from the reintroduction of free will. When humanity is roused from its ten years on automatic pilot, Trout becomes its hero. Because people have had no free will for ten years, they have forgotten how to use it, and Trout shows them the path to readjustment. Trout’s words, for which he is celebrated, are, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”
Vonnegut’s epilogue honoring his “big brother Bernie,” who died toward the end of Timequake‘s composition, calls to mind his prior references to saints he has known who, in an indecent society, behave decently. His references throughout Timequake and this final tribute to Bernard Vonnegut seem a recommendation of that gentle man to the status of saint.
Karen Priest; Judith K. Taylor
Updated by John L. Grigsby
Other Major Works
SHORT FICTION: Canary in a Cat House, 1961; Welcome to the Monkey House, 1968; Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, 1999.
PLAY: Penelope, pr. 1960 (revised pr., pb. 1970 as Happy Birthday, Wanda June).
TELEPLAY: Between Time and Timbuktu: Or, Prometheus-5, a Space Fantasy, 1972.
NONFICTION: Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons (Opinions), 1974; Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 1981; Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, 1988; Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980’s, 1991; Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation About Writing, 1999 (with Lee Stringer); A Man Without a Country, 2005; Armageddon in Retrospect, and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace, 2008.
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE: Sun Moon Star, 1980 (with Ivan Chermayeff).
Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Presents critical analysis of Vonnegut’s fiction, emphasizing in particular the works produced during his “major phase” in the 1960’s, including Slaughterhouse-Five. Supplemented with annotated bibliography and index.
Boon, Kevin A., ed. At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Collection of eleven essays examines Vonnegut’s moral vision.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Slaughterhouse-Five”: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Provides a thorough and modern treatment of Slaughterhouse-Five that debunks earlier, fatalistic interpretations of the novel. Includes a comprehensive chronology, a thorough bibliography, and an index.
_______. The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. One of the most authoritative scholars of Vonnegut’s work presents insightful analysis of all of his major fiction. Provides biographical information and discusses how the events of Vonnegut’s life influenced his writing.
_______. Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Makes a case for Vonnegut as a sort of redeemer of the novelistic form after writers such as Philip Roth declared it dead. Traces Vonnegut’s successful integration of autobiography and fiction in his body of work.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, and John Somer, eds. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973. Collection of essays by various authors constitutes one of the most important accountings of Vonnegut’s early career. Establishes the nature and sources of Vonnegut’s reputation during this important period, analyzing his career through Slaughterhouse-Five.
Leeds, Marc. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Authorized Compendium. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Provides a comprehensive, descriptive listing that identifies Vonnegut’s most frequently recurring images and all his characters. Indispensable for serious students of Vonnegut’s work.
Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Examines Vonnegut’s novels against the framework of American history and the literature of the twentieth century.
Reed, Peter J., and Marc Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles: Interviews and Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Collection includes three interviews with Vonnegut and eleven essays on his work by various scholars. Among the topics that Vonnegut addresses in the interviews are postmodernism and experimental fiction. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
Tomedi, John. Kurk Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Presents an informative overall survey of Vonnegut’s life and literary work, including his nonfiction.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1985. Vonnegut discusses his writing career and his work, with an emphasis on his opposition to book censorship.