The books of Kurt Vonnegut, who was born 100 years ago this Friday, are funny, unflinching, soft-hearted, stark, imaginative and approachable – and just as relevant now as when he published his debut novel 70 years ago. Start on one of his best books and you’ll quickly see why he’s held in such rare affection by his fans: “Uncle Kurt,” this year’s Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka calls him.
The opening words of Vonnegut’s most famous book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) – “All this happened, more or less” – sound like a modern manifesto for autofiction. But it’s that playful “more or less” that acknowledges both the truth of the source material – Vonnegut as a prisoner of war in Germany witnessed the Allied firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 and built this book around it – and the flights of fancy (crazy-paving structure, aliens, time travel) with which he decorated it.
The novel, Vonnegut’s sixth, represents a concentration of the author’s style that means, even if it’s not the very best of his works, it’s certainly the most intensely Vonnegut-ish. The balance of irony and sentimentality at which “Uncle Kurt” excelled is exemplified in the book’s two most famous lines. Every character’s death is punctuated with the resigned – or stoical – sigh of “So it goes”, and the ironic epitaph that war-veteran Billy Pilgrim imagines for his gravestone – “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” – is now often seen quoted with a straight face. (So it goes.) On the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, a journalist for this paper wrote that “Catch-22 [published eight years earlier] was a splendid, savage but abstract joke compared with the irony and compassion of Mr Vonnegut’s.”
Slaughterhouse-Five wasn’t Vonnegut’s first attempt to put the second world war in a novel. There’s a case to be made for the blackest of his black comedies, Mother Night (1961), to be considered his unsung masterpiece. It slipped under the radar on publication as it went straight into paperback – Vonnegut needed the money – and it took time for its greatness to be recognised.
Mother Night takes the form of the confessions of an American spy and Nazi propagandist while he awaits trial in Israel. “Howard W Campbell, Jr – this is your life!” Campbell’s tragedy and sin is his failure to realise that the lies he told in his broadcasts, even though he didn’t mean them, were providing succour to real Nazis. In punchy chapters of snappy dialogue and selections from Campbell’s mailbox (“Dear Howard: I was very surprised and disappointed to hear you weren’t dead yet”), Vonnegut gives us a surprisingly bright and highly readable account of the knowing descent of a man into a world of evil. “We are what we pretend to be,” he writes in his introduction, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
As he became a literary celebrity, and his scepticism toward the Vietnam war made him a countercultural figure, two things happened. First, Vonnegut’s books began to be censored and banned – and even burned, as happened to Slaughterhouse-Five at Drake High School in North Dakota in 1973. Vonnegut wrote to the head of the school board, in polite but uncompromising terms.
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely [… t]hose words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”
The other thing that happened was that Vonnegut leaned into the playfulness that was emerging in his writing, and the prime example of this mid-period Vonnegut – serious topics, anecdotal whimsy and eccentric characters – is Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye Blue Monday! (1973). The book is full too of another emergent Vonnegut trope – cartoons that break up the text: “To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole,” he writes, above a generously proportioned, felt-penned asterisk. While working on Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut said in a letter to his publisher: “It takes me so long to find out what my books are about, so I can write them.” And what was this one about? American society, and how it drives its people – like car dealer Dwayne Hoover – insane.
A reality check: no writer with a long run – Vonnegut wrote 14 novels as well as numerous other books – is perpetually perfect, and many Vonnegut fans would agree that his novels from the 1980s and later are pale imitations of his previous work: at their weakest they are rambling, unstructured and repetitive. “I can’t understand how he gets the enthusiasm to get in front of the typewriter and actually write that stuff,” Vonnegut fan Douglas Adams put it. “It’s like going through the motions of his own stylistic tricks.” For me, Deadeye Dick (1982) and Hocus Pocus (1990) are the runts of the litter. But from the same period Bluebeard (1987) and Galápagos (1985) are better, and happily, Vonnegut’s final novel Timequake (1997) was a full-blooded return to form.
But Vonnegut’s brilliance wasn’t limited to the novel: several collections of his stories have been published, though one that stands up with his best work is Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). The stories may well be “samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels,” but there is nothing phoned-in here, and reading a handful will give you a rich shot of concentrated Vonnegut: the writer who “smiles and tells it straight” (New York Times). Try Who Am I This Time?, about a quiet couple who can communicate only through the play scripts they perform, or Vonnegut’s mini-masterpiece Harrison Bergeron, set when “the year is 2081, and everybody is finally equal”. It is, of course, a dystopian horror story.
But time is short, and if reading Vonnegut today is as important as I say, there must be one outstanding title above all, right? Yes: if “masterpiece” means anything, it means Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s 1963 novel might be slim but it fits in everything that’s best in his work: his science fiction-ish imagination (see also 1959’s The Sirens of Titan), his deep reserves of humanity, his ability to temper irony with sentimentality, and his way with a fast quip. Clearly inspired by cold war fears – it was published the year after the Cuban missile crisis – this is a lively and deathly comedy, a pocket epic in which the world ends to the tune of the false religion of Bokononism. Along the way there are riffs on the gaps outside science, the uses of art, the value of other people and the importance of keeping going in the face of a world that can only make you ask: “My God – life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”
• This article was amended on 11 November 2022. An earlier version incorrectly named Slaughterhouse-Five as Vonnegut’s fifth novel, rather than his sixth.