New Vonnegut collection
FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINE
Apocalypse Now and Forever
A new collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s early work shows him to be the world’s sweetest man of war.
By Jacob Rubin Published Jul 10, 2011
(Photo: Israel Shenker/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
A cranky ostrich in a rumpled suit, Kurt Vonnegut might seem an odd fit for the staid Library of America. (His advice to young writers? “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”) But Vonnegut, like his hero Mark Twain, has always been something of a paradox—a beloved grouch, a man who has a bad thing to say about almost everybody but for whom no one has a cross word.
Scratch many a satirist and you find a wounded optimist still hoping to chip away at the world with the pick of his derision. In Vonnegut, though, one rarely senses the reformer’s zeal that energizes so much satire, from Swift to South Park. Doom, in his novels, is a given. The foreshadowing is all but lacquered on, so that early in Cat’s Cradle the end of the world is guaranteed. In Slaughterhouse-Five, characters’ fates are often meted out the moment we meet them. “There are almost no characters in this story,” Vonnegut writes in the novel, “and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”
Slaughterhouse was an unlikely book—an earnest war novel tricked out with pomo special effects and framed with a loopy sci-fi conceit. And it transformed Vonnegut, a genre-fiction workhorse and WWII vet, into an even unlikelier hero of the counterculture. Almost instantly, the novel joined Catch-22 (1961) and V (1963) in the rabidly dog-eared, passed-from-friend-to-friend canon of literary cult objects. Like “Catch-22,” its immortal refrain “so it goes” seeped into the national parlance, even rising to the level of protest mantra. (To appreciate how weird this is, compare it with “Yes, we can.”) Today, his influence is so ubiquitous as to be invisible, though carbon traces can be detected in the work of any writer who deploys earnestness under cover of irony. And as far as I can tell, Vonnegut remains one of the very few socially mandatory reading experiences of high school.
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