Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

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Random House / Reuters

Kurt Vonnegut

The proper length for an obituary for Kurt Vonnegut is three words: "So it goes." This one will do what Vonnegut never did, which is go on too long.

"So it goes" is a phrase from Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade. It's an expression the Tralfamadorians — a race of four-dimensional aliens — repeat whenever somebody or something dies. It expresses a certain airy resignation about the inevitability of death. Vonnegut — who died Wednesday night at the age of 84 from injuries suffered in a fall — had the Tralfamadorian attitude. "I've been smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since I was 12 or 14," he told Rolling Stone last year. "So I'm going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, who manufactured them. And do you know why? Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me."

Vonnegut was born Indianapolis in 1922, the son of an architect. His early life shows the kind of aimless lateral peregrinations of someone who was in the process of inventing a kind of person that hadn't really existed before. He put in a mediocre stint at Cornell before enlisting in the army in 1942, in the teeth of World War II. Shortly afterward — and within a year of each other — two events occurred that would prove to be formative for Vonnegut. In 1944, on Mother's Day, he came home on leave to discover that his mother, an unsuccessful writer, had committed suicide with sleeping pills. In December of that same year Vonnegut was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war. On February 13, 1945 Dresden was leveled in a massive Allied bombing assault so intense it created an enormously destructive firestorm. Well over 130,000 people died. Vonnegut survived by hiding in the basement of a slaughterhouse.

Perhaps because he began his writing career fully disillusioned, Vonnegut's view of the world changed very little over his five decades as an author. His first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952 and set in a spiritually empty, hyper-mechanized future dystopia. (Vonnegut mixed literature with science fiction long before it was cool.) His most famous novel — his personal favorite, and the one that deals with most directly with the Dresden disaster — is Slaughterhouse-Five, the story of one Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes "unstuck in time": Billy experiences the events of his life in random order, including his own birth and his own death. Understandably, this imbues him with a weird, almost redemptive fatalism, which is echoed by the narrator, who is Vonnegut himself. "There would always be wars," he writes, "they were as easy to stop as glaciers... And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death."

Vonnegut's sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom, is such that reading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy. His opinion of human nature was low, and that low opinion applied to his heroes and his villains alike — he was endlessly disappointed in humanity and in himself, and he expressed that disappointment in a mixture of tar-black humor and deep despair. He could easily have become a crank, but he was too smart; he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress; he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction, whatever it took.

Vonnegut struggled with silence and depression — including a suicide attempt in 1984 — but in all he managed to publish 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction. His last book, Man Without a Country, a collection of essays published in 2005, was a surprise best-seller.

Although he died a literary celebrity, lionized by the culture of which he was so unsparing, Vonnegut was always drawn to outcasts and failures in his writing: criminals, the deformed, the exiled, the damaged, the insane, anyone who no longer had a stake in repeating society's familiar lies. The cast of Cat's Cradle includes one of those outcasts, a midget to whom Vonnegut gave the title speech:

"No wonder kids grow up crazy," the midget says. "A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's..."


"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."