God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Friday, April 13th, 2007 · 3 Comments »

I don’t know what sort of bedtime stories most parents tell their children, but here’s one my father told my brother and me when we were little:

“A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

“Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.”

My Dad, you see, was a Kurt Vonnegut fan.

I grew up on Vonnegut. I started gobbling up his books as soon as I was past the Happy Hollisters stage of reading development. Most people cite Slaughterhouse Five as the definitive Vonnegut novel; as a kid I found Sirens of Titan more compelling. But my favorite is Breakfast of Champions:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

Most other countries didn’t have doodley-squat. Many of them weren’t inhabitable anymore. They had too many people and not enough space. They had sold everything that was any good, and there wasn’t anything to eat anymore, and still the people went on fucking all the time.

Fucking was how babies were made.

Occasionally, when I’m musing over the fate of my own novelistic characters, I imagine myself in the cocktail lounge of the Midland City Holiday Inn, wearing dark glasses as I quietly observe the people I’ve invented. Me, the Creator of the Universe.

I was on a par with the Creator of the Universe there in the dark of the cocktail lounge. I shrunk the Universe to a ball exactly one light-year in diameter. I had it explode. I had it disperse itself again…

The bartender took several anxious looks in my direction. All he could see were the leaks over my eyes. I did not worry about his asking me to leave the establishment. I had created him, after all…

And he went on staring at me, even though I wanted to stop him now. Here was the thing about my control over the characters I created: I could only guide their movements approximately, since they were such big animals. There was inertia to overcome. It wasn’t as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as though I was connected to them by stale rubberbands.

So I made the green telephone in back of the bar ring. Harold Newcomb Wilbur answered it, but he kept his eyes on me. I had to think fast about who was on the other end of the telephone. I put the first most decorated veteran in Midland City on the other end. He had a penis eight hundred miles long and two hundred and ten miles in diameter, but practically all of it was in the fourth dimension. He got his medals in the war in Viet Nam. He had also fought yellow robots who ran on rice.

The robots are a reference to a short story by Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego, who also wrote the Zog story quoted above.

Trout’s son, Leon Trotsky Trout, is the ghostly narrator of Galapagos, one of Vonnegut’s finest late novels. It’s a million years in the future and the only remaining humans have evolved into seal-like creatures with flippers.

There is another human defect which the Law of Natural Selection has yet to remedy: When people of today have full bellies, they are exactly like their ancestors of a million years ago: very slow to acknowledge any awful troubles they may be in. Then is when they forget to keep a sharp lookout for sharks and whales.

This was a particularly tragic flaw a million years ago, since the people who were best informed about the state of the planet, like Andrew MacIntosh, for example, and rich and powerful enough to slow down all the waste and destruction going on, were by definition well fed.

So everything was always just fine as far as they were concerned.

For all the computers and measuring instruments and news gatherers and evaluators and memory banks and libraries and experts on this and that at their disposal, their deaf and blind bellies remained the final judges of how this or that problem, such as the destruction of North America’s and Europe’s forests by acid rain, say, might really be.

Yes, there was some unexamined sexism, especially in his earlier work. This was no doubt because a) he was born in 1922, and b) his relationship with his own mother was traumatic, to say the least. But he learned. He was too smart not to — and too much of an iconoclast to shrink from deconstructing his own prejudices. Compare Player Piano (1952) to Galapagos (1985) or Bluebeard (1987) to see just how far he came.

In the past few years, I was cheered to see that he’d taken to using gender-neutral language in his interviews and speeches. He made a point of saying women’s liberation was an excellent thing. To those of you with mixed chromosomes and/or pale skin it probably seems silly that I should care about such things, but if you have mixed chromosomes and/or pale skin you’ve probably never had the painful experience of discovering that your childhood hero thinks people like you are inferior.

So it’s nice that Vonnegut learned that women are not inferior.

And now he’s gone, sucked into the wriggling blue tunnel to the afterlife. Hi ho.

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3 Responses to “God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut”

  1. Eric Paulsen says:

    I tried to write a story about a reunion between my father and myself in heaven one time. An early draft of this book in fact began that way. I hoped in the story to become a really good friend of his. But the story turned out perversely, as stories about real people we have known often do. It seemed that in heaven people could be any age they liked, just so long as they had experienced that age on Earth. Thus, John D. Rockefeller, for example, the founder of Standard Oil, could be any age up to ninety-eight. King Tut could be any age up to nineteen, and so on. As author of the story, I was dismayed that my father in heaven chose to be only nine years old.

    I myself had chosen to be forty-four–respectable, but still quite sexy, too. My dismay with Father turned to embarrassment and anger. He was lemur-like as a nine-year-old, all eyes and hands. He had an endless supply of pencils and pads, and was forever tagging after me, drawing pictures of simply everything and insisting that I admire them when they were done. New acquaintances would sometimes ask me who that strange little boy was, and I would have to reply truthfully, since it was impossible to lie in heaven, “It’s my father.”

    Bullies liked to torment him, since he was not like other children. He did not enjoy children’s talk and children’s games. Bullies would chase him and catch him and take off his pants and underpants and throw them down the mouth of hell. The mouth of hell looked like a sort of wishing well, but without a bucket and windlass. You could lean over its rim and hear ever so faintly the screams of Hitler and Nero and Salome and Judas and people like that far, far below. I could imagine Hitler, already experiencing maximum agony, periodically finding his head draped with my father’s underpants.

    Whenever Father had his pants stolen, he would come running to me, purple with rage. As like as not, I had just made some new friends and was impressing them with my urbanity–and there my father would be, bawling bloody murder and with his little pecker waving in the breeze.

    I complained to my mother about him, but she said she knew nothing about him, or about me, either, since she was only sixteen. So I was stuck with him, and all I could do was yell at him from time to time, “For the love of God, Father, won’t you please grow up!”

    Kurt Vonnegut – excerpted from JailBird

    Well, he’s up in heaven now… god bless you Mr. Rosewater, and thank you.

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    I just finished Cat’s Cradle for the first time in too long.

    It was a perfect choice – the end of the world, Bokononism.

    Oh, he was AWESOME on the Daily Show.

  3. Jonah says:

    I really appreciated your comments here, as I too was pretty much raised on Vonnegut. I actually discuss a little bit about his death on my blog, Only in America.

    This is a fantastic blog you have here. Consider yourself linked.