If no one’s said it yet, I will: Kurt Vonnegut was American literature’s finest satirist since Mark Twain. (Whom the mustachioed, frizzy-haired Vonnegut increasingly came to resemble in later years.) Like Twain, he had a merciless eye for those aspects of American life (and human nature) that we’re quickest to bury under layers of politeness, particularly our quickness to resort to violence. Like Twain, he progressed from laugh-out-loud funny to ruefully bitter as he aged. By the end of his 84 years, Vonnegut was hoping for a spectacular, suicidal death, like a plane crash into Mt. Kilimanjaro. But death came to him in more mundane fashion yesterday, as he succumbed to brain injuries suffered in a recent fall at his Manhattan home. Vonnegut would have been the first to appreciate the irony; he probably would have greeted it with a sigh: “So it goes.”
Verbal shrugs like “So it goes” and “Hi ho” became catchphrases in his work, shorthand distillations of the wistful, ironic, sad-clown view of humanity that permeated his books. His ability to express a complex philosophy in simple, comic terms was one of the paradoxes that fueled his greatest works. Most of his books were novels of ideas, but novels that were accessible to general readers. He told fantastic, wildly imaginative stories that were often based on experiences from his own life. He embraced science fiction (space travel, time machines, robotics, chemical warfare, and environmental apocalypse were routine in his books) but was taken seriously by the literary establishment. It’s no wonder that one of his most beloved recurring characters was Kilgore Trout, a hack sci-fi writer who’s also something of a Cassandra, embedding prophecies in his strange tales that go unappreciated and unheeded.
Vonnegut’s voice found its fullest expression in his 1960s books, The two indispensable ones are Cat’s Cradle — a riotous satire on Cold War politics, sex, religion, technology run amok, xenophobia, and the end of the world — and Slaughterhouse-Five, his most autobiographical novel, a slight fictionalization of his experiences as a POW during the Allied bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. Of course, Slaughterhouse-Five also features time-traveling aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who observe the protagonist’s life with philosophical detachment; the suggestion is that human folly and savagery can be understood only from the perspective of a great remove. Indeed, Vonnegut began to distance himself from his own subjects, at least metaphorically, in 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, the author’s 50th birthday gift to himself, in which he took his formal experiments to their logical conclusion and bid a fond, Pirandellian farewell to his stable of recurring characters.
addCredit(“Kurt Vonnegut: Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images”)
After that, Vonnegut’s satirical view began to curdle into something more despairing; by the end of his life, the ever-prolific author had abandoned fiction altogether. Still, his 2005 essay collection A Man Without a Country was a best-seller, and he remained a popular draw on the lecture circuit and on college campuses, where his iconoclasm always seemed to be in fashion. (He even appeared as himself in a cameo in the 1986 campus comedy Back to School.) In 1997, he was the subject of an Internet hoax in which a newspaper columnist’s list of funny/sad advice tips for young people was circulated globally as an email that misattributed the tips to a Vonnegut commencement speech. (Baz Luhrmann was inspired to set the list to music, before he learned Vonnegut didn’t write it, and had a hit single with “Everybody’s Free [To Wear Sunscreen].”) Vonnegut may have been a literary school unto himself, with few novelists following in his footsteps (um… Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Douglas Adams?), but it’s nice to know that his ideas and sensibility have permeated pop culture.
UPDATE: Want to hear Vonnegut’s indispensable voice? Check out this lengthy 2005 interview he did on PBS’ NOW, in which he talks about his life, his work, contemporary politics, and the end of the world. It’s streaming at the show’s website.