I woke this morning to the news that Kurt Vonnegut has died at the age of 84. I first discovered his novels when I was in junior high school, and like many young people, I felt as if his message spoke directly to me.
His most well known book was Slaughterhouse Five, whose most memorable line was never far from my mind. The story begins with aging optometrist Billy Pilgrim at his typewriter, writing a letter to the editor of his local paper. “I have become unstuck in time,” he writes.
Slaughterhouse Five has been classified as science fiction because on the surface the story is about time travel. Pilgrim keeps bouncing back in forth between events in his life, mostly between his current suburban life and his time with the Army as teenager during the last months of World War Two. It is Vonnegut’s story, and the time travel is simply a metaphor for his reflections on his life. As he travels back in his mind to tell us what it was like to witness the firebombing of Dresden, he finds a story much different than what we (or he) expected.
Vonnegut was a pessimist, discouraged by human behavior which seemed bent on destruction and obsessed with minutia. It’s no wonder that his work speaks so strongly to disaffected adolescents. I absolutely hated having to read Charles Dickens and William Faulkner in high school. There was nothing in Victorian England or the rural south that spoke to me, that expressed any truths about my own human experience. And Dickens was so long winded. Vonnegut wrote in a short, breezy style. His book Cat’s Cradle consisted of dozens of short chapters, some just a paragraph long. It was almost like a stream of consciousness, and reading his prose was like having a conversation.
It had been ten years since Vonnegut’s last novel was published, and although he repeatedly insisted that he was retired, he continued to write. A collection of his political commentaries was published in 2005, and while I can’t say I always agreed with him, it was a treat to have them… like one last letter from a dying friend. Thanks for everything, Kurt.
Here’s a selection of links on Vonnegut and his works.