From the Archives: Captain Kurt Spaces Out (1985)

The venerable Vonnegut shoots from the lip at a decidedly unsober seminar.
Kurt Vonnegut
Courtesy High Times

By Craig Silver

Richard Brautigan committed suicide. Joseph Heller has become trite. Thomas Pynchon no longer writes. But Vonnegut goes on. Hi ho.

More accurately: Hi Ho!, because Vonnegut remains a major standard-bearer of the crazed-lunatic, surrealist-absurdist, ultimately ultra-sane literary style that blazed across the ’60s. Remember the ’60s? The ’60s—a metaphor for a sensibility that has now be come unstuck in time. Unstuck in time—a phrase coined by Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five, a big ’60s novel that was partly an allegory about Vietnam. Vietnam—a deadening of the spirit caused by American corporate greed disguised as misguided American philanthropy. Kurt Vonnegut: an expert on the deadening of the spirit.

“This country is making me crazy,” Vonnegut recently told a slightly shocked but spellbound audience, much of which thought he was drunk, at the New York University Writers’ Conference. “New York is making me sick… my wife is making me sick… you can become sick by the culture outside yourself.”

Vonnegut is basically so pissed at humanity that he kills off all of it but a handful in his new novel, Galápagos, and those he saves he turns into harmless, armless creatures resembling porpoises who only like to fart, fuck and go fishing—scratch that, all they can do is fart, fuck and go fishing, because that’s where evolution has left them. He’s also stripped them of their so-called “big brains” and covered them with fur. It’s the big brains that have made people miserable, Vonnegut has concluded, and in Galápagos, humans’ large brain size will prove to be an evolutionary dead end, like the flightless wings on a dodo bird.

“It’s hard to believe nowadays that people could ever [be] brilliantly duplicitous…” says the narrator in the book, a million-year-old ghost named Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s famed s-f writer character, Kilgore, “…until I remind myself that just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute…”

No, there’s no end to the mess people make of their world in Vonnegut’s works, or the mess the world makes of them. “Society and culture are my villains,” he told the budding NYU writers. “I think society is wicked.”

Such a blunt assessment of modern reality has made Vonnegut a hero to generations of college-age social rebels, from the ’60s to now. They respond sympathetically to his basic premise that life has become much more precarious than it need be. The idea is brought out in novels like Galápagos, Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick, that are based on undeniably plausible visions of sudden and unnecessary apocalypse. In Galápagos an epidemic destroys human fertility; in Cradle a pointless scientific invention freezes all the water in the world; in Slaughterhouse the good guys wreak an inferno on a large civilian population; in Deadeye the U.S. government destroys an Ohio city to test a neutron bomb. And so on.

Vonnegut rages at society gone mad, at technology gone mad, at a people gone morally soft in the head and hard in the heart. “How sick was the soul revealed by the flash at Hiroshima?” he asks in his autobiographical Palm Sunday. “I deny that it was a specifically American soul. It was the soul of every highly industrialized nation on earth… so sick it did not want to live anymore. What other soul would create a new physics based on nightmares, would place into the hands of mere politicians a planet so ‘destabilized’, to borrow a CIA term, that the briefest fit of stupidity could easily guarantee the end of the world?”

But though many college students may love Vonnegut, he doesn’t necessarily love college students. In a brief interview with HIGH TIMES, he brushes them off as being mostly “conservative, like their parents” because of their privileged economic standing. “Students were conservative when I went to school at Cornell. The class system in this country has been stabilized since 1900… This is a society that protects the prosperous.” He adds with a chuckle, “So I’m not in any danger.”

Vonnegut has taken to berating students while on his lecture tour for voting for Reagan in such heavy numbers. “You’re investing a lot of time and money and effort to acquire knowledge,” he exclaims. “And here’s a man who has never read a book!”

On the whole, Vonnegut’s politics tend to be more ruefully existential than dogmatically class-conscious, but he definitely has had fun slapping around the rich and eccentric in his tales. And a more boisterous array of the strictly looney-tunes cannot be found in all of literature.

There’s Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, who concocts a religion of personal philanthropy based on fire engines; wealthy Pontiac dealer Wayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions who suddenly believes the world has turned into rubber; the mutant, hirsute twins who speak gibberish to each other in Slapstick; a bag lady who controls a powerful, evil conglomerate in Jailbird; a charlatan artist whose passion for gun collecting destroys his family in Deadeye Dick.

But what does Vonnegut really think about rich people? Quite simply, he thinks they are destroying our literature.

“Rich people are more and more dominating writing, because they can afford to write,” he said at NYU. “And, of course, they’re going to write about their own experiences: prep school, sailing, horseback riding.”

He thinks this is a particular shame because he thinks it’s our literature that communicates to the world “that Americans aren’t just gangsters and cowboys. We are human… Our literature is what makes us respectable.”

Vonnegut’s outspokenness on so many subjects has made his books a favorite target of archconservative groups who would like to dictate the reading habits of the nation’s young. Slaughterhouse-Five was actually pulled out of a school library in Drake, North Dakota, and burned in the furnace by the school janitor, obeying the instructions of a book-monitoring committee there.

Vonnegut’s works, along with those by such literary Big Names as Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud and Mark Twain, have been assailed in various censorship campaigns that saw incidents of book-banning, or attempted book-banning, increase 1000 percent between 1971 and 1981, according to the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.

Vonnegut prefers not to be alarmist about the book-banning craze, and told HIGH TIMES that such moves “are more of an irritant than something that has had a crippling effect. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is now more interested in First Amendment cases as a result, and it has gotten a lot of other people oriented to the problem.”

Asked about such recent court cases as that in which film director Costa-Gavras was sued over a fictional movie (Missing) depicting American-sanctioned brutality in Latin America, Vonnegut commented that “There’s always been censorship. We actually have a surprising amount of freedom here. Censorship is a universal human impulse everywhere. Those people [who would censor] don’t know how the American game is supposed to be played. They’re very bad Americans.”

Vonnegut sees something else as being as much a threat to writers and writing: the fact that, perhaps as a result of living in an apocalypse-haunted—not to mention TV-and-movie drenched—culture, people no longer have much in the way of attention spans.

“It’s been shown that audiences can’t stand exposition. People are writing books like movies, with quick cuts. People will no longer sit still during the opening of a play and listen to a maid talking on the phone setting up character and action.”

This is an ironic comment coming from a writer who has made a stylistic specialty of tearing away all excess verbiage from his prose (except for those repeating mantras), a writer who has built a reputation for streamlined story-telling that makes him something of an Ernest-Hemingway-of-the-absurd.

“I write from the point of view of a child,” he has said. “Like Henry David Thoreau.” He tells students that “the writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo speech you heard as a child. I grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”

For Vonnegut, keeping it plain has serious religious implications. “Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’”

Some critics have had trouble coming to terms with Vonnegut’s immense popularity, and deride as merely facile his controlled comic style. But no true student of writing would fail to see the enormous and painstaking craft that goes into Vonnegut’s prose, how he is able to purposefully recharge with life withered figures of speech, how his jokes jump out at the reader like pop-up figures in a greeting card. That takes hard work, and incredible skill.

Today, Vonnegut says he’s never edited unless he asks. He enjoys writing “only in retrospect—after it’s done” and that he does read his reviews. “But the reviews are often the sadistic part of a magazine.”

“Some of the reviews are like the court martial of Dreyfuss,” he told a British documentary team, “where they form up the regiment in the square, and Dreyfuss is marched out, and they pull off his buttons—which are all the books I’ve written up to then—and then they take the man’s saber—which is maybe the one really good book I wrote, Slaughterhouse-Five—and the officer busts it over his knee and hands it back!”

With Galápagos, Vonnegut proves that his vision remains the bleakest and blackest around, and miraculously still one of the most fun to lock into. And he’s no hypocrite. He doesn’t just think your brain and my brain are way too big for reasonable functioning—he has stated for the record that one of his long-term goals is to “clear my head of all the junk in there… all the assholes, the flags and the underpants. I’m trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born on this damaged planet…”

Perhaps he is trying to attain a Zen state of consciousness, where emptiness is form. With his simplicity of style, his sense of stillness and pain, his mantras and his absurdities, and his death-to-civilization hopefulness, maybe he has even achieved it.

What’s the sound of one Vonnegut laughing?

Hi ho.

High Times Magazine, December 1985

Read the full issue here.

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