Arts & Culture

The Chainsmoking Smirker of Sci-Fi: Kurt Vonnegut

By Liam Woodworth-Cook

Fiction is an incredibly diverse platform in literature. There are not only many different genres, but several layers within those categories. There are the hundreds of cowboy tales at gas stations and gift shops down south, the romance novels that stretch whole aisles with the repeated images of a damsel looking distressed, a shirtless savior who is a man, and some kind of horse. There are books and books based off canon and non-canon literature from movies and tv shows. There are all sorts of kid books, and “teenage” works. There’re both bizarre and straight laced narratives. We haven’t even hit the Western Classics, sitting thick and musty on the shelf. I’ll mention too, the fan-fiction running on the internet for pages and pages of quirky tales. Historical fiction can stretch from engaging, to dull.

Stories are built and repeated throughout genres. Authors find their formula and stick to it, whether that’s horror master Stephen King or Tom Clancy with whatever military drama he writes. There are also sweet timey one-offs, making the best seller list and being wrapped up for gifts that season. A vast amount of work came out of the 20th century that remains in circulation, and discussion. Some of those authors hold space in the loose genre of Americana.

Born on November 11th, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would be such an author. Vonnegut’s novels deal with America; they express a reflection of the American experience Vonnegut saw, satirizing and criticizing it. He also goes farther than the shores of the United States, philosophizing the wonders and horrors of the world in a comic fashion. Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and several of his stories relate to this mid-western experience. Vonnegut broke through to the mainstream with the release of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five- part memoir, part time-traveling fiction. The story depicts a American POW (prisoner of war) in the German city of Dresden when it was bombed by the allies. Kurt Vonnegut had been there himself, when on February 13, 1945, the Allies dropped more than 3,900 tons of explosive bombs and incendiary devices onto the city. Rough estimates of the death count come to 22,700 – 25,000 people, mostly civilians, as the city became engulfed in flames. Vonnegut cleared rubble and bodies, having survived the attack by being underground in a former meat locker and slaughterhouse.
The bombing has been subject to debate over whether it was justifiable so late in the war. Slaughterhouse-Five, a popular read in high school, has been regarded as one of the greater anti-war novels. Vonnegut was a comedic genius in his use of voice. He pulls us through his books as if a grandmother inviting us for tea and cookies. Vonnegut opens the 4th wall, and strolls in and out of his pages like the narrator of a movie freezing the frame. He pokes fun at himself, and his books contain his own scribbled drawings to help us visualize what he discusses. He takes the frightening and shines a light; not so we miss the horror of it, but that we realize we can be okay and discuss it.

Vonnegut has an innate humanness in his writing. It is often a bleak, science fiction-esque dystopia. His characters vary: a salesman, a failing sci-fi writer, himself as a time traveling soldier and more. He grapples with the large world and its machines, while recognizing the tininess of individuals. His essay book, Man Without A Country, is a frank, post 9-11 view on America and the world. He writes about himself, his story, his ideas, and the disappointing place those who survive him are possibly headed. He’s quirky, witty and frank. He tells the audience he’s suing Pall Mall because the cigarettes haven’t killed him yet despite promising him on every pack. His books deal with life and death, what remains and what moves on. He passed on to wherever, April 11th, 2007. So it goes.

Categories: Arts & Culture

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