Vonnegut's Last Laugh

A Talk with America's Greatest Living Saab Dealer

"In a way," he told me, "there's been so much art, there's practically nothing left to do." He meant style: "What I don't like now is that writers don't write sonnets and sestinas, and so forth, because this puts a stress on the language which can have enormously beneficial effect. You're going along, and all of a sudden, to fit this goddamn metric scheme or rhyme scheme, only one word'll fit. It's a word you've hardly ever used in your whole life--and you put it in. And it resonates through the whole thing..." He calls shop talk about his trade "how the lady got sawed in half," and matter-of-factly shared one secret of his matter-of-fact art--learned, he said, from his newspaper work in high school and at Cornell: "You do entirely without suspense."

But one of the most interesting things Vonnegut said about his writing, and maybe himself, came out indirectly. I'd wondered why, aside from Dresden (big exception!) he'd written so little about being a POW. Here's what he told me: "Because it was an utterly passive experience. There was nowhere an opportunity to initiate anything, and so I would have to be--I'd have to be a poet, and just be saying all the time what it felt like to be in this kind of trap, or that kind of trap. Hell, I did nothing. It was all done to me. So you don't want to talk about it--it's not very interesting. What you wonder is why this guy's doing it to you," he finished, laughing. "He's the one with all the initiative."

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Vonnegut never saw himself as a rebel. At home, he'd found nothing to rebel against: "I was lucky in lots of ways," he said. "One was that my American ancestors were all people to be proud of....And their contributions to American life had been quite substantial and nice." Here's one: the panic bar on doors in public buildings was invented by his great-grandfather, the heraldically named Clemens Vonnegut. "That's reason enough for people to be glad the Vonneguts are here."

He's also glad he came from generations of skeptics. "We had nothing to be talked out of," he said--meaning himself, sister Alice (many years gone, and mourned in Slapstick), and brother Bernard (gone last November, and mourned in Timequake). "Like any organized religion: Mormonism or Catholicism or being Jewish, or whatever. We didn't have to give it up--we didn't have it in the first place. And so it was fun to talk about everything, and you couldn't get into much trouble no matter what you said."

Since then, he's gotten into lots of trouble. Slaughterhouse-Five is always being banned (and once burned: boy, did the ACLU tear them a new one) in one school district or another. He's debated right-wing Christers in more than one forum--"and watch out for those guys, because their shock troops are really something." Back during Vietnam, he was regularly attacked as a naysayer and heretic.

"I had 'em, though," Vonnegut recalled with deep satisfaction. "I was a veteran. I was a veteran! You know, I actually saw Germans! Man, that's--there's only one rank higher than that, and that's ‘Mother."'

Timequake won't annoy the country's self-appointed guardians. But it will irk some readers. The first time through, it sure irked me--I thought it was flimsy and unsatisfying. But that's been my first impression of all his books. Then I go through them again, and everything's there; it just isn't surrounded by cumbersome neon arrows, bellowing "Here it is." Nor can Vonnegut be faulted for tempering his idiosyncracies to make them appear less flaky; the book says purely what he wanted it to say, and nothing else.

So is it his last go-round? He said so: "Civilization's been very nice to me, and has just let me talk my fool head off. So there's not much bottled up in me. Nothing shrieking to be said." Yet he was soon merrily describing the new novel he'd idly thought up that morning: "About the Diana cult, and how it grows and becomes the largest religion in the world."

At least Di's a topic people would recognize. "You can't use history as an echo chamber in writing anymore," Vonnegut told me more than once. "People don't know...there was a Turkish empire, don't know about the Turks being turned away at the gates of Vienna--and it's all so wonderful!" he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up again. Then he remembered something that tickled him silly--and I know a parable when I hear one. "Years ago," he said, "Life magazine did a piece on [Duchamp], and one of his famous pictures is the Mona Lisa with a mustache. And the letters poured in! Everybody thought this was the Virgin Mary." He was brimming with hilarity now: "They'd always thought the Mona Lisa was the Virgin Mary..."

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