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Kurt Vonnegut Gets in the Last Word

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kurt Vonnegut is having a good time. Sitting on a couch amid the working clutter of his editor’s mid-Manhattan office, he lights an unfiltered Pall Mall and laughs, a propulsive, wheezy explosion.

At 74, he looks good, his curly mop of hair still mostly brown, hazel eyes large and slightly rheumy behind his glasses, like two raw eggs floating in the middle of his face. When he smiles, which he does often, his eyes widen in something close to wonder and the lines of his flesh recede, leaving the impression of an overgrown child. The most prominent reminder of his age is his mustache, graying and stained nicotine yellow in places, which makes him look astonishingly like his hero, Mark Twain.

Given Vonnegut’s status as the elder statesman of our literary humorists, it seems strange that his high spirits should come as a surprise. Yet for all his gentle wit and “gaily mournful” perspective (as he once wrote of his fictional alter ego), in recent years this condition has been more the exception than the rule. Ever since the publication of his 10th novel, “Deadeye Dick,” in 1982, Vonnegut’s books have seemed oddly burdened, at times hopeless, what he once called “sardonic fable[s] in a bed of gloom.”

In the 1991 essay collection “Fates Worse Than Death,” he wrote at length about his own disappointment and disillusionment, touching on a suicide attempt he made in the mid-1980s, and noting that for “whatever reason, American humorists or satirists or whatever you want to call them, those who choose to laugh rather than weep about demoralizing information, become intolerably unfunny pessimists if they live past a certain age.”

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With his new book, “Timequake,” however, Vonnegut appears to have turned some kind of corner, if not coming to acceptance, then moving toward an accommodation with the world. “I don’t like what my country has become,” he says, “and the news about what we’re doing to the life-support system on this planet is perfectly awful. But I have grandchildren, which gives me a vested interest in the future.”

Vonnegut’s change of heart could not have come at a more opportune moment. Although he is still very much a fixture in literary Manhattan, where he lives with his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz, “Timequake,” he insists, is his final book, the swan song to his nearly 50-year career. “Why is it my last book?” he asks. “Well, you can ask an insurance actuary, if you want. I’ll be 75 on Nov. 11, and that’s enough, I think. I owed Putnam one more book on a contract, and I wanted to honor it, but there are plenty of books. No more books need to be written as there have already been so many wonderful books.”

Intermingling bits of fiction with autobiographical reminiscences, “Timequake” has at its center “a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum” called a timequake, which turns the universe back from 2001 to 1991 and forces everyone to relive that decade. Originally written as a novel, it was reconstructed after Vonnegut decided it did not work, and is as moving and compelling a work as he has produced in years. “It was what a novel is supposed to be,” he explains, “a conventional novel. But I decided I wasn’t saying anything I wanted to say. Actually, Putnam was perfectly satisfied with it. They’d accepted it, and it was in the catalog, but it seemed like a lie. I can’t tell you why it seemed like a lie, but it seemed untrue, and I didn’t want to end my career that way--like Mick Jagger, so to speak.”

The decision to retire, is an unusual one, for literary writers have traditionally chosen to peter out rather than walk away. But, Vonnegut says, it is due to a variety of factors, not least the fact that writing books has become “too hard.” Another reason is what he sees as the demise of reading as “a middle-class entertainment” in the age of the Internet. “When I started out,” he recalls, “which was essentially when I quit my job at General Electric in 1950, it was possible to make a living as a freelance writer of fiction, and live out of your mailbox, because it was still the golden age of magazines, and it looked as though that could go on forever.

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“The first story I sold to the Saturday Evening Post, I came home from work, and I had an upright piano inside the front door, and on the music stand of the piano, with a candle on either side of it, was a check for $1,500. General Electric was then paying me $5,000 a year. I had a wife and two kids. My goodness, I thought, this is interesting. Then television, with no malice whatsoever--just a better buy for advertisers--knocked the magazines out of business.”

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It’s fascinating to hear Vonnegut discuss his literary origins in such conventional terms, for he remains best known as one of the quintessential writers of the 1960s, a countercultural figure responsible for helping to alter the way an entire generation thought about literature.

His 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five"--generally acknowledged as his masterpiece, and based, in part, on his experiences surviving the firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II--continues to be challenged by school boards and parent groups as a corrupting influence, while books like “Cat’s Cradle,” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” “Welcome to the Monkey House” and “Breakfast of Champions” have transformed our very idea of narrative, relying on plots that, Vonnegut himself has written, are “short and jumbled and jangled,” but manage to make sense just the same.

Compulsively readable, merging humor and pathos, outrageous invention and the most personal elements of autobiography, his novels function something like literary Chinese boxes, in which structure is elliptical, reality is delightfully anarchic and endings are often telegraphed from the very first page. “If what I write seems odd,” he says, “or idiosyncratic, it’s because I never had a mentor, an English teacher, telling me how to write.”

Vonnegut’s comment suggests the unlikely process by which he became a writer at all. Born in Indianapolis, the son of a German American architect who insisted he get “a practical education, not an ornamental one,” he studied “math and chemistry and physics” in high school, while contributing to the student newspaper on the side. At Cornell, he followed the same pattern, training to be a biochemist and working on the Cornell Daily Sun. One legacy of this experience is a certain distrust of liberal arts education; as he writes in his 1981 book “Palm Sunday,” "[It] would never occur to me to look for the best minds of my generation in an undergraduate English department anywhere. I would certainly try the physics department or the music department first--and after that biochemistry.”

Because of the role science has played throughout his novels and stories, Vonnegut has found himself at times categorized as a science fiction writer, a tag that, at least at the beginning of his career, contributed to his being essentially ignored. Early novels like “Mother Night” and “The Sirens of Titan” were published as paperback originals, and, for the most part, were not reviewed. By way of response, Vonnegut created the science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout, a literary “alter ego” of sorts who has appeared in several books. (Trout’s name, the author notes, was inspired by real life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon; “I think it’s funny,” he laughs, “to be named after a fish.”)

Like most of Vonnegut’s recurring characters, Trout was emancipated in 1973 at the end of “Breakfast of Champions,” but he comes back for an encore in the fictional sections of “Timequake,” where he plays the role of a latter-day Paul Revere, crying out that free will has returned after the timequake ends. “I don’t know why, I just wanted him back,” Vonnegut says when asked about Trout’s reemergence. “I wondered who he really was.”

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If Trout’s presence in “Timequake” serves any larger function, it’s to highlight the book’s reflective, elegiac tone. A similar sensibility marks Vonnegut’s conversation, especially when it comes to his family, many of whose members--including his brother, Bernard, who died this past April, and his sister, Alice--are gone. The notion of family, in fact, or more specifically of extended family, is one to which he continually returns. “It’s like the Samuel Goldwyn line,” Vonnegut ventures, “ ‘If you have a message, send a telegram.’ The telegram I would send is: Get yourself an extended family. When I think of how vulnerable the nuclear family is--Jesus, if anybody gets sick.”

Vonnegut’s not merely spouting rhetoric; in 1958, two days before Alice died, her husband was killed in a train wreck, and Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, already the parents of three children, adopted their three orphaned nephews, as well. “You would have done the same thing,” he says in retrospect. “I went down there and took over the household. The kids had a meeting. They went upstairs in the house I was running. They came back downstairs. ‘We want two things,’ they said. ‘We stick together, and we keep the dog.’ ”

For Vonnegut, this concept of family above all other things has its roots in the way he was raised. “I was a child of the Depression,” he notes, “and what you do is support a family.” At times, this has meant considerable sacrifices of both body and spirit; while living on Cape Cod in the early 1960s, with all his books out of print, Vonnegut wrote industrial advertising in Boston, and later became a car dealer for a while. “I had a hell of a time making a living,” he remembers. “I had six kids to support, and I was really scrambling.”

But although he jokes that parenthood deprived him of certain advantages--"I haven’t got a gang,” he says. “There was the Paris Review gang over there in Paris, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Irwin Shaw; they all had a swell time, you know, and I was stuck with the kids"--from the perspective of the present, he is sanguine about the way it has turned out. Even when he had to go to work, Vonnegut says, “I never felt as Nero did when he committed suicide. Apparently, his last words were something on the order of, ‘Oh, what a great artist dies today.’ ”

Now that Vonnegut has written his last book, he’s not sure what he’s going to do. Despite his book’s odd character, his publisher has already printed 150,000 copies and expects it to land on bestseller lists. For his part, he’ll probably “write little stuff,” although that doesn’t include short fiction, a form in which he hasn’t worked since 1972. “Short stories,” he declares, “are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life. You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute--it has to be a con.”

In the meantime, most of his creative energy goes toward making pictures, which he draws with India ink on acetates and sends to a silk-screen maker in Kentucky, who turns them into prints. “I’m lucky,” he says with a certain satisfaction, “that I’m free to do art, and presumably to keep my soul growing, by finding something else to do. Participation in the arts--drawing, dancing, and all that--makes the soul grow. That’s why you engage in it. That’s how you grow a soul.”


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