I share two things with Kurt Vonnegut, the author whose many books and short stories resonated with readers beginning in the 1960s and 197os. Vonnegut and I share a birthday, November 11 (although years apart). And we both worked as publicists for large American corporations. He worked in the gulag at General Electric before moving on to become one of the world’s most famous and well-read writers.
Over the years, I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s books, and his themes still resonate with me and I expect many others in my generation who grew up during Vietnam and Watergate. During that era, unless you had your head stuck so far up your ass that it was rubbing the inside of your belly button, you almost had to notice that our government and elected officials are not above lying to the American people and that war isn’t as romantic or heroic as depicted on TV and in the movies.
Here’s from an online biography:
American author Kurt Vonnegut combined satiric social commentary and black comedy with surrealist and science fictional elements. His best known works are Player Piano (1952), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969; film, 1972), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Known for his outspoken political opinions, Vonnegut also produced a host of essays, articles, and short stories. A number of his works have been translated into television or film, and he graced a few of these with cameo appearances. Vonnegut was also a graphic artist, and illustrated a number of his works himself.
Common themes in Vonnegut’s work include the dehumanization wrought by technology, as well as by bureaucracy and media indoctrination. Sexuality and violence and the myths that spring up around them are also common themes. While Vonnegut’s work has sometimes been criticized for flouting accepted narrative conventions, for “sophomoric simplicity”, and for vulgarity, there is no mistaking the passion of his underlying arguments — for pacifism, for socialist equality, and most of all for the need for common decency. Yet what separates Vonnegut from other social commentators and political do-gooders is that he never seemed compelled to elevate himself above the rest of humanity. He portrayed himself, as he did nearly everyone else (hero or villain), as a dumb schmuck struggling to do his best, despite mispatched mental programming and an unsteady world.
Vonnegut died four years ago. But his books are enjoying a renaissance as we are stuck in the sinkhole of Afghanistan, waiting to see who in Pakistan gets to put the finger on the nuclear trigger, and facing a whole host of domestic issues involving social welfare spending and programs.
Here’s from NPR, “Kurt Vonnegut: Still Speaking To The War Weary“:
Kurt Vonnegut’s blend of anti-war sentiment and satire made him one of the most popular writers of the 1960s, a time when Vietnam dominated the headlines in a way the country’s current wars do not. On Thursday, the Library of America is republishing four novels written when Vonnegut was at his height of popularity — Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.
The central theme in Vonnegut’s fiction from the 1960s is the irrationality of governments and the senseless destruction of war. In a 1987 interview, Vonnegut said he was determined to write about war without romanticizing it.
“My own feeling is that civilization ended in World War I, and we’re still trying to recover from that,” he said. “Much of the blame is the malarkey that artists have created to glorify war, which as we all know, is nonsense, and a good deal worse than that — romantic pictures of battle, and of the dead and men in uniform and all that. And I did not want to have that story told again.”
In a 1991 interview, shortly after the Gulf War, Vonnegut said he was saddened by what he saw in America.
“We have become such a pitiless people,” Vonnegut lamented. “And I think it’s TV that’s done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is Whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill.”
Since we are sliding head first into the weekend and nobody is on Facebook or Twitter because they aren’t at work, if you are looking for a book to read pick up one of Vonnegut’s.
He spoke first to the generation that grew up with Tricky Dick Nixon. But he still has something to say.