Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

I developed a taste for satire in high school, and Kurt Vonnegut was at the top of my list of favorite writers. I read everything he had written at the time including Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, Welcome to the Monkey House and Slaughterhouse-Five. I remember I first saw a copy of Cat's Cradle on the desk of a grad student, who said that everyone was reading Vonnegut; I immediately decided I had to as well.
Vonnegut's work may be the best argument against the defenders of Don Imus who offer excuses for his offensive remarks by calling them satire. True satire is sometimes harsh, but rarely mean. Our best satirists—Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Russell Baker and Kurt Vonnegut—have always understood this distinction.

He wrote about humor in his 2005 book, A Man Without a Country:
I grew up at a time when comedy in this country was superb — it was the Great Depression. There were large numbers of of absolutely top comedians on radio. And without intending to, I really studied them. I would listen to comedy at least an hour a night all through my youth, and I got very interested in what jokes were and how they worked.
When I'm being funny, I try not to offend. I don't think much of what I've done has been in really ghastly taste. I don't think I have embarrassed many people, or distressed them. The only shocks I use are an occasional obscene word.
When I came home from work this evening, I pulled my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five off the shelf; I had not read it for many years. Vonnegut's most memorable characters had their flaws, but usually portrayed with humanity and even some sympathy. The simpleton Eliot Rosewater, the oddball science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, the Nazi collaborator Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and the passive Billy Pilgrim, who became unstuck in time, were all allowed their humanity. He never belittled or condemned his characters, even the odious Paul Lazarro; he just described them with simple prose. (His first rule of writing: "Do not use semicolons.") Vonnegut took note of his gentle ways with his characters in Slaughterhouse-Five:
Shortly before my father dies, he said to me, "You know—you never wrote a story with a villain in it."
Vonnegut had a remarkable ability to break through our ways of seeing the world with a matter of fact directness, whether he was describing the Tralfamadorians or in his depiction of war as "artificial weather" in Slaughterhouse-Five.
After Slaughterhouse-Five, I gradually lost interest in Kurt Vonnegut; at the time I didn't know what else he could say that could add to what he had already deposited deep in my mind. But Vonnegut didn't quit; his last book, A Man Without a Country, reminded us of his wit and relevance in our current era of almost unbearable absurdity:
If I ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
Photo: Jill Krementz


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