Wars. Nuclear weapons. Free will. Suicide. Race relations. These are all emotionally charged and serious topics that Kurt Vonnegut didn’t shy away from. Instead, he addressed them in his novels head-on in a humorous and imaginative way.
“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”
– Cat’s Cradle
Do you know how his writing journey began?
The best way to find out is to read his dark satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five. If you don’t already know the book, it’s time to catch up!
Here’s a quick refresher: the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck” in time. He is now able to travel through the timeline of his life and experiences moments in no particular order. He finds himself reliving World War II, where he was imprisoned by the Germans in an empty Dresden slaughterhouse.
But his imprisonment proved to be a blessing in disguise. While allied bombs flattened the city, he was safe in the underground slaughterhouse, making him one of the only survivors.
These tragic events actually happened to Vonnegut. To make matters worse, his mother had also committed suicide on Mother’s day just five months prior. This shaped his view of death and he expressed it in his book in the form of the repeated phrase “so it goes”. It was not to denote apathy, but to show how death comes randomly to anyone at any time and reflect on the meaning of death and the costs of war.
Although he wrote many critically acclaimed novels, it was his rejected master’s thesis in anthropology that he considered his best contribution to literature. Titled The Shape of Stories, he analysed famous stories (Cinderella, the Bible, Jane Eyre etc) and graphed the fortunes of protagonists from beginning to end, coming up with this:
He found that most stories came in similar shaped curves (‘Man in Hole’ and ‘Boy Meets Girl’) which had satisfying resolutions but were not true to reality. Instead, his preferred curve was ‘Which Way is Up’ where it is difficult to distinguish between the character’s good and bad fortunes.
He used this curve in his very first dystopian novel, Player Piano (1952) in the life of Dr Paul Proteus, the main character, who experiences various ups and downs. Living in a world completely run by machines, Dr Paul is slated to inherit a powerful position in a big machine corporation. However, he feels dissatisfied with the system and things get even more complicated when he meets the rebel faction. Although automation increases efficiency, it displaced factory workers and left them to live in slums. Torn between both worlds, he has to make a choice between pursuing power or justice. Vonnegut used this novel to question the ironies of automation and the quality of life. Other novels quickly followed, with similar, non-linear storylines—Sirens of Titan (1959) and Mother Night (1961), to name a few.
Although his brilliant theory was first rejected because it was too fun and simple, it paved the way for many further studies and writers on how to design stories more effectively.
Kurt Vonnegut faced many more trials but never gave up—he continued to write and speak out on social issues, such as nuclear arms control, protection of the Earth’s environment and freedom of speech. Curious to find out what other trials he faced? Catch a glimpse with these books: