In “Timequake,” Kurt Vonnegut’s 1997 novel about not being able to write a novel, the great American writer killed off his recurring alter ego, Kilgore Trout, at age 84. Vonnegut died Wednesday; he was 84.
For the author of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Breakfast of Champions” and other incomparable visions of life on planet Earth, the particulars of existence — most especially, man’s inhumanity to man — were so unfathomable they could only be confronted under cover of a feverish imagination. Vonnegut’s books, once described by the writer Dave Eggers as “very personal novels disguised as allegories disguised as science fiction,” were themselves alien life forms, and they were a perfect fit in the back pockets of the children of the generations that came of age during the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s.
“As an adolescent he made my life bearable,” said Jon Stewart, who is now 44, as he introduced his literary hero on “The Daily Show” in 2005. Using mischief, structural anarchy and preposterous scenarios as the tools of his trade, Vonnegut tackled the most unanswerable conundrums of human life: Is there a god? What is progress? And, most significantly, why on Earth are we so unfailingly awful to each other?
A curly-haired figurehead to the erstwhile counterculture, Vonnegut remained a devoted thorn in the sides of power until the very end. On that “Daily Show” appearance, he savaged his country’s perennial promise to impose democracy on lesser forms of government: “In a democracy,” he said, “after 100 years you have to let your slaves go. And after 150 years, you have to let your women vote.”
Vonnegut’s dyspepsia, a trait he shared with his own literary hero, Mark Twain, was unfortunately well-earned. His mother committed suicide just before her son went off to Europe to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Captured behind enemy lines, he was imprisoned in Dresden, where he witnessed the furious Allied bombing campaign that leveled the city. He was put to work disposing bodies, the numbers of which were so overwhelming that they had to be torched with flamethrowers.
In 1958, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer; the same week, her husband died in a train crash. The writer subsequently adopted his three orphaned nephews. He struggled with depression for much of his life, and his son Mark wrote about his own breakdown in “The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity.” “The children of a suicide will naturally think of death, the big one, as a logical solution to any problem,” Vonnegut once wrote.
Yet his best novels and short stories often treated comedy — dark comedy, to be sure — as the only logical response. If crying and laughing, as he once suggested, were equally valid reactions to the miseries of life, he preferred laughing, which required “less cleaning” afterward.
In 1997 Vonnegut found himself at the center of an amusing hoax, in which he was attributed as the author of a commencement address in which he reportedly dispensed simple advice, the most memorable bit of which was to “wear sunscreen.” Although the “address” actually originated with Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, the author graciously dismissed the hubbub: “I would have been proud had the words been mine,” he said.
In “Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons,” one of several of the author’s appealing collections of essays, reviews and other odds and ends, he featured an actual commencement address he gave at Bennington in 1970. Among other pearls of wisdom, he downplayed the usefulness of his own chosen field. The arts, he said, cannot be trusted because they “make human beings seem more wonderful than they really are.”
So it goes, as Vonnegut typed again and again in his manuscript for his wartime masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Life is ominous. It can be horrifying. Most of all, however, it is ridiculous.
A playwright, essayist and short story writer as well as a novelist, at heart Vonnegut was, like Twain before him, a top-shelf aphorist. He may have kernelized his life’s work way back in 1961, in “Mother Night,” when he wrote, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.”
James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.