Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

It's hard to find, but deep in the bitter, whiskery heart of Kurt Vonnegut's books is a love for all of mankind. It's just that along with love comes disdain for our failings, contempt at our shortsightedness, and a weary hatred for our base need to kill each other in increasingly brutal ways. He knew we could do better. He just never expected us to.

When I discovered Vonnegut in high school, he was pretty much retired. He retreated into an insular shell to let the world deal with its own problems. He'd said what he wanted and didn't feel it would make that much difference. As he says in Slaughterhouse-Five, anti-war books do about as much good as anti-glacier books.

But even if books will never stop wars, they at least pass on a love for the written word. Vonnegut's best works are like magic tricks. You read them again and again positive you understand the gimmick, but when you try it yourself, you end up with an empty hat. He appears in his own books sometimes. In Slaughterhouse-Five he's both author and character. In Breakfast of Champions he actually shows up in a scene with himself, and the two have a conversation. I tried this several times only to realize I wasn't up for the strain. Anyone can write about himself. But do you know how to write about yourself writing about yourself? I don't think I'll ever have that much perspective on my own life.

Humans in Vonnegut's books are brutish, thoughtless animals. A few individuals recognize this base core of violence and rebel against it by forming peaceful new religions, giving away their worldly possessions, or creating a happier world in their own minds. "So it goes," is the refrain of Slaughterhouse-Five. Death is inescapable. When a soldier dies frozen in the snow, "So it goes." A thousand die in a firebombing, "So it goes." A million vermin die when a pile of clothing is deloused, "So it goes." Therein lies Vonnegut's hidden message. Yes, death is our inevitable ending, but to accept it without thought, to view war as just another natural inclination, is to put ourselves on the level with lice.

Sometimes mankind is cruel by accident. In Deadeye Dick a young boy shoots a rifle into the air and plugs a child right between the eyes a mile across town. In Cat's Cradle a scientist creates a substance that causes all the water on Earth to freeze permanently solid. Why? To see if he could do it. To him it was a parlor trick. He never suspected anyone would want to use it as a weapon, or that such a weapon would destroy all life on the planet. Do these stories sound like arguments for gun control and nuclear disarmament? They are. But with very little preaching and a whole lot of love. Bless our little hearts, Vonnegut seems to be saying. We have the best of intentions, but murder seems to be sewn into the seam of our DNA.

But wait, didn't I just find an argument against just such nihilistic thought? At times Vonnegut does seem to be at war with himself. In Cat's Cradle he creates the religion of Bokononism with the foundation that all religions, including Bokononism, are false. But these false beliefs are the keys to happiness. One of the main beliefs of Bokononism is that all people are gathered into groups by God to do God's work without ever knowing what they were doing. Such a team is called a karass. Of course, the narrator's karass is chosen by God to destroy to destroy all God's creatures. Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five is kidnapped by aliens (or is he?) who teach him a new way of viewing the universe. All things, according to the aliens, have happened and are still happening right now. So what exactly is "now"? It's whenever you want it to be. Not happy with our surroundings or situation, just step through time into the future when the hard times have all passed. A pleasant thought, one that almost seems agreeable if you could actually get it to work. I use it sometimes. When work is stifling or life just depressing, I project myself to when time is my own and I'm free to do as I please. It's a cop out, I know, a way to avoid confronting reality head-on. Billy Pilgrim's life is rendered drab and bare because he constantly skips over the hard times. But when has that ever stopped us from wanting a perfect life?

Vonnegut does seem to have little faith in the future. In Timequake all the world is stuck in a loop where the actions of the previous decade happen again. Everyone is helpless to change the events they know are going to occur. They become automata following a program, unable to do anything different. And they like it. When the loop finally breaks, humanity doesn't have a clue how to act deliberately. They've become accustomed to operating on autopilot, and they miss it. In The Sirens of Titan we learn that the entire history of Earth, from the first fish that decided it might be neat to try walking on land to the first and final battle in space, has been manipulated by an alien power. I won't blow the ending by revealing the alien's reason for treating mankind as an ant farm. And returning to Slaughterhouse-Five, we have my third favorite prose passage ever. Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time and watches a war movie in reverse. A plane full of dead men flies backwards over a battery of guns that draw the bullets out of the corpses and bring them back to life. The plane lands and people rush to remove the dangerous bombs from its payload. A factory of women dismantle the bombs, then the deadly radioactive cores are removed and planted far underground where they can't hurt anyone. The movie ends there, but Billy imagines all the people in the movie cooperating to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve. It's a beautiful fantasy. But a pointless one. We can't roll back time. The damage is done. Our innocence died long ago.

So where's this love I started talking about in the beginning? I told you it's hard to find. But think of mankind as an infant, screaming at all hours of the night, shitting itself and rolling around in it for a while, putting dangerous things in its mouth. Annoying. Demanding. But once in a while it makes such an adorable face and gurgles out a sound that's almost a real word, and you just have to hug it.

There you go. Love.

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