Laughing in the Face of Death: A Vonnegut Roundtable
April 11, 2013 | by Je Banach
“Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
—Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)
When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.
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-Five were 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.
What is it that makes Vonnegut’s brand of humor so important and so memorable?
Rick Moody: That it’s full of dread.
Can you describe for us a moment from Vonnegut’s work that was particularly memorable for you?
David Holub: In Cat’s Cradle, we’ve just met H. Lowe Crosby and his wife Hazel. Crosby is moving his bicycle manufacturing business to “grateful” San Lorenzo because he perceives his future employees to be “poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!” The Crosbys are “heavy people, in their fifties,” bootstrap Americans, pleasant but probably not too happy with where the country is heading. When it comes to San Lorenzo and its dictator, “Papa” Monzano, Crosby gushes about how they punish any lawbreaker by publicly hanging them through the stomach on giant iron fishhook—“No fines, no probation, no thirty days in jail. It’s the hook. The hook for stealing, for murder, for arson, for treason, for rape, for being a peeping Tom. Break the law—any damn law—and it’s the hook. Everybody can understand that, and San Lorenzo is the best-behaved country in the world.” After Crosby offers the gruesome details of the hook, the unconscionable narrator exclaims, “Good God!” to which Crosby replies numbly, “I don’t say it’s good, but I don’t say it’s bad, either. I sometimes wonder if something like that wouldn’t clear up juvenile delinquency.” Vonnegut peppers the passage with dark, ironic humor, derived almost entirely from the Crosbys’ absurd, vengeful, simplemindedness and lack of self-awareness, fully desensitized to shocking horrors, and sinister in their glibness. In this context, the folly of state-sanctioned murder becomes even more horrific and foreign. But more than a comment on capital punishment, Vonnegut demonstrates the dangers of a blind with-us-or-against-us allegiance to authority. He shows us a mentality that assumes the government, the police, the wealthy, the people in power always get it right and that fascism is okay as long as it doesn’t impede our comfort and maintains the order that put people below us.
The Crosbys go on to discuss the Chamber of Horrors they saw in a wax museum they visited in London. The display showed a man hanging from a hook. Kids and adults alike, Hazel says, viewed the gruesome scene with blithe detachment before idling to the next display. “‘What was the next thing?’” Crosby says, “‘It was an iron chair a man had been roasted alive in. He was roasted for murdering his son.’ ‘Only, after they roasted him,’ Hazel recalled blandly, ‘they found out he hadn’t murdered his son after all.’ Here, it is Vonnegut who gets the last laugh, comically and savagely scourging Hazel with what satirists might see as the biggest sin of all—heartbreaking indifference.
Ben Greenman: I have been rereading Vonnegut, in a sense, through my twelve-year-old. About a year ago he got to Cat’s Cradle, and I looked annoyingly over his shoulder as he read the first page, and I am not ashamed to admit that I teared up a little bit. “Call me Jonah.” That's how he starts. “Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John. Jonah—John—if I had been a Sam, I would have been a Jonah still—not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.” It’s not an especially dramatic opening. It’s conversational, then slightly reflective. But as a literary move, it’s superb, moving outward simultaneously toward two different literary predecessors, the Bible and Melville. It calls into question the largest issues, from identity to birthright to identity, without being heavy-handed. It’s fleet and smart and sad without surrendering an ounce of its humor.
The other moment that springs to mind is chapter eight of Breakfast of Champions, which is the infamous chapter that starts with Kilgore Trout wandering onto Forty-Second Street in New York City and encountering various drug addicts. The chapter includes a drawing of a syringe, and then, a few lines later, a drawing of an asshole. It made me laugh when I first saw it, when I was twelve or so, and it makes me laugh now. It looks to me like an asterisk. It’s followed by a page break that looks like an ellipsis, and then by an especially pointed Vonnegutian insight—“People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve.” He was filled with sympathy for imperfections, with suspicion of perfection, and he could not draw very well, and those are only a few of the reasons to love him and his work.
Je Banach is a member of the Residential Faculty in Fiction at the Yale Writers’ Conference. In 2013, she will also lead the conference’s seminar on literary discourse (criticism and review). A recipient of the New Boston Fund Fellowship in Fiction, she has written for Esquire, Granta, Guernica, KGB Bar Lit, Bookforum, Oxford University Press, Publishers Weekly, PEN, and many other venues.
Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and What He’s Poised to Do. His new novel, The Slippage, comes out next month.
David Holub is editor of Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor and teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Hartford. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, the Christian Science Monitor, AGNI, American Book Review, PANK, Hobart, and others. He lives in the woods.
Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a collection of essays on music. He also plays in the Wingdale Community Singers, who have a new album out, entitled NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH.
Josip Novakovich, a native of Croatia and current Man Booker International Prize finalist, teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. His fiction has appeared in a dozen languages. His most recent book of essays, Shopping for a Better Country, was published by Dzanc Press last year.
Avi Steinberg is the author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.