On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.
How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?
Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. In my own work, I have moved between experimental fiction and straightforward fiction, between “funny” writing and “serious” writing—I put those words in quotes in Vonnegut’s honor, to show how absurd the division can be—but all along the way I have continued to feel that there’s something wrong, and that it needs to be addressed. Priorities are skewed. Power is misused. Attention is misdirected. Vonnegut’s influence works at the depths but also on the surface. Whenever I feel a piece of my own writing becoming too complacent as an entertainment, whenever it feels like a sugared pill going down too easy, I remind myself to disrupt the operation of the text a little to recall readers to themselves. That remains, for me, the best thing about reading Vonnegut. You know you’re having a good time, but you also know you’re not.
Rick Moody: I was, as a young reader, really moved by Vonnegut’s disregard for story structure in the usual sense. The long, genre-free introductions, the reliance on “subliterary forms”—science fiction, e.g., and the general absurdity of the action, these are all alien to the mainstream of literary fiction, and, to me, excellent, surprising, and singular. I think he was sort of an experimental writer avant le lettre, in the same way that the later Cheever appears to be an experimental writer, though never identified as such. Another way of saying it—he was kind of a gateway drug for me. He led straight to Pynchon and Brautigan and even Coover and Elkin.
Josip Novakovich: Vonnegut has influenced me but it’s hard for me to distinguish his influence from those of other war tragi-comedians—Jaroslav Hasek, Céline, and Joseph Heller, whose works have preceded Vonnegut’s. Vonnegut took the line duty dance with death from Céline to use as a subtitle to Slaughterhouse-Five. On a purely technical level, Vonnegut has influenced me. Unlike his predecessors, who after brilliant passages seem to get lost in their asides, Vonnegut, no matter how digressive, always arrives to his points of departure, with a light touch. Though yes, I think Catch-22 could have been edited to attain greater power and clarity, but it’s a fantastic and hilarious work nevertheless. Vonnegut’s sentences are graceful, sometimes minimalistic, and so are his asides, biographies, forays into science fiction, autobiography, and so on. What Elie Wiesel says, that there is a difference between a book which was 800 pages and is now 200 and a book which was 200 pages to begin with. In the first, the cut 600 pages are still there, exerting their influence, only you don’t see them. I am paraphrasing. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse, on which he worked on and off for twenty years, was at least 5,000 pages of effort, which he distilled into a single malt of 200 pages. That took an amazing amount of self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It helped that he wrote at least twenty more books, so he didn’t need to jam all his brilliance into one, although it feels he has. Yet his novel reads like a 5,000 page novel in terms of content—it’s a total novel, against totalitarianism. I heard Fuentes talk about Don Quixote as a total novel—historical, romance, satire, humor, a novel of ideas, and so on. Another novel like that is Brothers Karamazov—a murder mystery, a novel of ideas, a theological novel, a historical novel, a topographic novel—Dostoyevsky’s geography is always accurate and amazing—a romance, a comedy upon second reading, a psychoanalytic novel before psychoanalysis, et cetera. And Vonnegut’s novel is a whole world unto itself and unto us—fiction and nonfiction, novel and memoir, philosophical meditation, satire, comedic novel, psychoanalytic novel—sci-fi as an expression of post traumatic stress and brain damage—and, above all, antiwar protest novel. I have not written a total novel myself—and my philosophical passages from April Fool’s Day and the just completed novel about Russia have irked my potential editor, so they have been mostly gutted out for the sake of the aerodynamism of the narrative. I still have much to learn from Vonnegut—how to compress things and yet not compromise them, how to digress into history, quote from various historical accounts, and not stifle the narrative. The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.
One of the most interesting facets of Vonnegut’s humor—perhaps the most interesting facet—is its ability to make the reader laugh while informing a very serious commentary. Can you share your thoughts on this?
Ben Greenman: Well, think of Bokonon. Think of how the idea of Bokononism—the fictional religion Vonnegut invented for Cat’s Cradle and returned to occasionally—both lampoons the idea of religion and also, gently, justifies it. Bokononism is a religion that suggests that religion has no essential truth, except for the fact that believing in harmless untruths may make you a better person. This is a wonderful idea, humorous in the best sense, playful—silly, even, at times—but also deadly serious. With so much cant encircling contemporary culture, with so many malicious lies whizzing by at the speed of media, the notion that faith should be a kind of self-improving fancy is a godsend. I should say that it is hard for me to talk about Vonnegut without beginning to sound a bit preachy. It’s not hard to read him and resist that temptation, but when I start to discuss the books, I quickly find myself infuriated at the way that satire, gentle and not-so-gentle, and clear thinking, both positive and negative, and the toppling of terrible things in our culture and our media are all out of step with the times. There is a strain of Look at Me, and another strain of Beat the Competition of the Story or Nonstory, and another strain of Subtlety Is Everyone’s Enemy, and another strain of Toxic Self-Importance. See—the preachiness is happening again. It’s not his fault. It’s mine.
Avi Steinberg: Vonnegut once told an interviewer that the UFO rides in Slaughterhouse-Fivewere intended to simply lighten the mood, to give us a break. That may have been his intention but it isn’t quite the effect. Those comic jaunts through time-space end up being a dramatization of the author’s conflict with and ultimately of his inability to face the horror of the Dresden bombing. On the page, we witness Vonnegut deploying all of his comic skills to escape the trauma of that place—and the fact that he doesn’t succeed, and that his escapism fails even as it reaches the edges of the universe, is what makes the story work. The humor doesn’t dare to fully enter the scene of massacre but exerts a powerful enough force that the reader can orbit around it. The seriousness of that book isn’t to be found in its ethical poses or in its reportage but in the brave and risky ways in which it uses humor to let the questions remain unanswered.
David Holub: Imagine a bird, something exotic and frightening, blackish purple from afar and oily iridescent up close. The bird is deviant and mercurial and elusive. You might see it, but never for long. Sometimes you’ll happen upon it by accident, you on a dumb stroll, the bird caught by surprise in a bush. The bird flutters away, its wings maniacally percussive. You were so close but the look you got was not good. It never is. Which is why we need our Vonneguts, their humor in particular. There are these things we create, these exotic birds difficult to get close to in understanding—war, racism, religion, sex, inequality, taboos, and sacred cows galore—until a Vonnegut comes around. Through irreverence, guts, hijinks, and charm, Vonnegut’s humor disarms and debilitates the bird long enough for us to come close, to pick up the bird, hold it in the air and examine it, ridicule it without anxiety, grief or fear, starving it, if only for a moment, of its power.
Josip Novakovich: Vonnegut’s humor made it possible to analyze publicly and frankly the American role in World War II, which was sanctified and glorified as heroic and pristine, to examine the way wars are fought, lives are neglected, and so on. And so on, and so it goes—his favorite phrases—give us a sense of no particular blame but a nature of things, of the universe, of evil, which comes everywhere. So his dark naturalistic metaphysics permeate his humor, and without his humor they would sound too dismal and alienating, but with his humor, which is like a Trojan horse, we enter the realms of patriotic absurdities and see how amidst of good-doing we resort through stupidity and evil into evildoing. Hiroshima was a well-known historical event, but until the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, the firebombing of Dresden and mass murder of old people and children in it, Hiroshima seemed unknown and classified, strictly military information. Of course, it helped that America was waging a dirty war in Vietnam to realize that perhaps in other wars too we were dirty. Just as Heller used World War I as a groundwork for critiquing American involvement in later wars, just so Vonnegut in some way, although not talking much about Vietnam, used Slaughterhouse-Five as a platform for cautioning us about what we were doing in Vietnam. Vonnegut has liberated many of us to write in a nonpartisan way, to read through patriotism and nationalism, to find the core of military stupidity, “collateral” damage, as not collateral but essential. The fact that wars are fought by mostly children—for eighteen-year-olds are but children—that lingers on in my head after my reading of Slaughterhouse. Wars may be designed by old men but they are done by innocents abroad. Innocence of eighteen-year-olds is a dangerous phenomenon, and reading books like this one might be the best education for the kids. But how much is such an influential book still being read? Anyway, I have assigned it to many people in my classes, and even the ones who don’t like to read seem to be lit up after reading the novel. I don’t have that luck with Catch-22, although I love it as much, and I must conclude that it has to do with the craft. Vonnegut has gemmed the dirty rocks of our past. The merciless sense of absurdity is the cutting knife for the stone, and you can see just from this quick quote how Vonnegut can strike all notes at once—absurdity, sadness, humor, despair. “Children’s Crusade started in 1213, when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered, thinking they were going to Palestine … Most of the children were shipped out of Marseilles, and about half of them drowned in shipwrecks. The other half got to North Africa were they were sold.” Actually, that’s not funny when I think about it, but at first, the absurdity of it made me laugh and then gasp as though I was drowning in a shipwreck. Vonnegut points out that it took two million lives to hold on to Palestine for a hundred years in the Middle Ages. The main character, hero/anti-hero of the novel, is Billy Pilgrim, one of those kids drifting through Dresden and to Vietnam-era America. I am reading the book in Jerusalem, 100 yards away from the Eastern Wall, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the book resonates as I listen to the call to prayer from a couple of nearby minarets. Maybe we should all pray, or pray and joke in resignation at the same time, as Vonnegut seems to have done. And amazingly, what he has not done, he has not passed judgment, and it has to do with this kind of wisdom, which he has absurdly and humorously summarized as what he basically learned at the University of Chicago—“I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. Another thing they taught me was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.”
Rick Moody: As he said himself, there’s a relationship between his humor and Twain. The humor punctures the sanctimony of American culture, and that’s perhaps why Vonnegut was so controversial after a time. The guardians of “high art” found Vonnegut’s satire and absurdism hard to take. But I find them rather genuine, especially when rendered in his world-weary voice. Moreover, he was writing about very serious topics—war, death, sexuality, depression, mental illness, et cetera. These things are hard to address head on. An oblique approach, which is what humor allows for, is more graceful. More compelling.
The use of humor to treat such serious issues is fraught with complexities though, isn’t it?
David Holub: If fiction makes the familiar unfamiliar, so does much of Vonnegut’s humor, especially in the most outwardly funny attempt of Vonnegut’s I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut’s approach is rather straightforward, easily tallied in the “Oh, why couldn’t I have thought of that first” category. Vonnegut’s chief humor device in Breakfast is where he describes everything from the humdrummity of humanity to the oddities of our creations, as if we were encountering them for the first time—“Girls concealed their underpants at all costs, and boys tried to see their underpants at all costs. Female underpants looked like this …” Or introducing an electric chair—“The purpose of it was to kill people by jazzing them with more electricity than their bodies could stand.”
Treating the familiar as unfamiliar draws out the absurdity in the world we have created, allowing us to see our existence anew. It makes our objects and actions seem silly in some cases and ridiculous in others. What has been hidden in normality is exposed. This fresh context brings surprise, and surprise mixed with the absurd usually results in humor.
Avi Steinberg: There are complications inherent in approaching mass murder, mass extinction, through humor. A scene in Cat’s Cradle spells it out. “I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch,” our narrator tells us. “Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet … There was a sign around my dead cat’s neck. It said, ‘Meow.’ ” There are times when Vonnegut’s humor feels exactly like that, wrecked by its own raging nihilism, leaving us a mere crime scene. In these brutal turns, we see evidence of the author’s anger, his unreformed pessimism run amok. His humor doesn’t always work but it always boldly strives to best its demons. It’s an occupational hazard for a writer who’s trying to make us laugh in a world run by savages.