Kurt Vonnegut died 14 years ago today. A few weeks beforehand, he had been taking his dog for a walk and got tangled up in the leash. The 84-year-old American fabulist fell and hit his head on the sidewalk outside his midtown Manhattan brownstone, slipping into a coma that he never came out of. So it goes, the late author might have said.
‘So it goes’ is the characteristically resigned phrase that recurs throughout Vonnegut’s bleakly witty and moving 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In marking the anniversary of his death, we might also remember another line from that work, which includes time travel and aliens and the real story of Vonnegut’s time as a prisoner of the Nazis during the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden: ‘When a person dies he only appears to die.’
This is something the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, learns from the Tralfamadorians, an extraterrestrial species that experiences time all at once rather than sequentially. Even if someone is dead now, they tell Billy, ‘he is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.’
It’s a comforting idea of sorts. ‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse,’ Billy explains, ‘all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.’
Billy Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time’ in Slaughterhouse-Five, and he is unexpectedly dragged from one moment to another—even before his birth and after his death—by some unknown power. He’s an old man one minute and a baby the next. He never knows when he’ll be, and without warning he can be brought back to that firebombing that Vonnegut himself only survived because he and the rest of the prisoners of war sheltered in the basement of an abandoned slaughterhouse.
It’s an impressive conceit of speculative fiction, and such an experimental approach to history also offers new ways to talk about the devastating effects of trauma that Vonnegut and others experienced during that catastrophic era. It also enacts a literary strategy to ironize and re-imagine ourselves, our stories, and our societies.
Vonnegut’s work is rich with such moments: fantastical ideas, often mediated through the conventions of science fiction, that are motivated by real injustices and tragedies – ideas that speak to the moral imagination and political conviction that Vonnegut expressed throughout his life. A pacifist, socialist, and humanist, Vonnegut weaves a bright thread of anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-racism throughout his literature. That’s why Vonnegut’s writing can be summed up neatly as a ‘Gospel from Outer Space’, sharing the title of a fictional story that Vonnegut attributes to his alter ego Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Trout envisions the Tralfamadorians retelling the New Testament to underscore that ‘the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.’ The problem with the Gospels as they are, the aliens reason, is that the message actually communicated is this: ‘Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.’ The rewritten New Testament, then, makes it so that Jesus really was a nobody who gets adopted by God after his crucifixion. The new message is that God ‘will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!’ It was Easter three days before Vonnegut died – another of the time-coincidences he would have loved.
Another time-coincidence concerning Vonnegut is that he died on the eleventh of the month. Vonnegut was preoccupied by the eleventh. He was born on 11 November 1922, and his birthday happened to be a holiday marking the end of World War I in 1918: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But Vonnegut disdained the American term Veterans Day, despite being a veteran himself, preferring instead to call it by its original name, Armistice Day.
‘Armistice Day was sacred,’ he writes in his 1975 novel Breakfast of Champions. ‘Veterans’ Day is not.’ Writing at the end of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut was clearly captivated by the idea that ‘during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another.’ He referred to such a ‘sudden silence’ as the ‘Voice of God’.
Turning the commemoration of an armistice into the glorification of violence went against what Vonnegut stood for – not that he thought protesting against war in a work of literature would do very much. ‘During the Vietnam War,’ he once remarked, ‘every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.’
In a sense, the custard pie is what Vonnegut served. He described his work as wrapping ‘bitter coatings [around] very sweet pills,’ and his novels, for all their barbed cynicism and biting humor, seek to invigorate our atrophied sense of human sympathy and solidarity – to enliven a new aesthetic and ethical framework that can awaken us from the nightmare of history and animate a new spirit of human freedom and dignity.‘My motives are political,’ Vonnegut noted, characterising himself as an ‘agent of change’, an ‘evolutionary cell’ who sought to make humanity ‘aware of itself, in all its complexity, and to dream its dreams.’
And what dreams may come: the ‘telegraphic schizophrenic’ structure of his novels—texts that are ‘so short and jumbled and jangled,’ as he assessed Slaughterhouse-Five—both awakens readers to the absurdities of our misbegotten late-capitalist contemporary and invites us to dream the world anew.
A transformative social consciousness runs through Vonnegut’s works, which express an acute frustration at injustice and an intense desire for something better. Vonnegut lavishes praise on volunteer firefighters as ideal public servants in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965); he retells the history of the American labor movement in Jailbird (1979)—including the framing of Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for murder in Boston as the pretext for their political execution—and the epigraph of his penultimate novel Hocus Pocus (1990) comes from America’s most prominent socialist, Eugene V. Debs: ‘While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.’ The themes of Debs’ stirring articulation of universal solidarity resurface in Vonnegut’s comic stories, enigmatic essays, and charismatic public addresses.
This, then, is how Vonnegut worked: gathering up quotations and stories and motifs and jokes and reusing them—often sacrilegiously—to comically and seriously condemn a world gone wrong. And at a time when the word socialism was practically taboo, especially in the United States, Vonnegut wasn’t afraid to celebrate it.
‘“Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity”,’ he once wrote. ‘Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women and children are created equal, and shalt not starve.’ Vonnegut himself was a staunch atheist, but he could appreciate a good story and piece of ‘subversive literature’ like the Sermon on the Mount. He also had a knack for communicating to those who might have otherwise written off such politics. It’s an appealing idea for our own time when socialist platforms sound more and more like common sense, even to the most resistant.
‘It isn’t moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all,’ he would say, insisting that we ‘divide up the wealth more fairly’ and ensure that ‘everybody has enough to eat, and a decent place to live, and medical help when he needs it. Let’s stop spending money on weapons . . . and spend money on each other.’
Vonnegut was an admirer of figures like Debs as well as Carl Sandburg and Powers Hapgood, and he would undoubtedly have had good things to say about the new generation of socialist political figures that led us through the latter 2010s, not to mention the artists, organisers, and citizens they inspired. Vonnegut invested great hope in the young, and Vonnegut himself continues to inspire.
So maybe Vonnegut isn’t really dead then, after all. Or not only dead. He’s just fine in plenty of other moments, including our own: we can turn to our shelves and pull out a book and hear him speak, if we want to. Whether it’s Vonnegut or us who come unstuck in time is irrelevant. ‘All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist,’ Billy Pilgrim explains. ‘It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’
Given that, Vonnegut’s statement to Bennington College’s Class of 1970 that he ‘would like to see America try socialism’ isn’t merely a half-century-old dream for something distant or speculative. The beauty of Vonnegut’s rethinking of time is that that future could just be today.