Vonnegut dies at age 84; His sharp American commentary lives on

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As I stare at the copy of Bluebeard sitting on my desk, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. Kurt Vonnegut was a voice for generations of the disaffected — a voice that spoke and wrote so eloquently and with such passion that nothing else in the world could match it.

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut was in an underground bunker in the city of Dresden, Germany, in the 1940s, when the Allied forces firebombed it. The city was destroyed and everyone was killed, in what most regard as a pretty dumb move on the Allies’ part. The city had no military operations except for the POW camp. Bombing Dresden benefited only one person, Vonnegut said. “I am that person. I wrote Slaughterhouse-Five.... One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed.”

During the summer before I started college, I rode the train in Germany. Before we crossed the border into the Czech Republic, the train stopped in Dresden. As I stared out of the cabin window trying to get a better view, I imagined what Vonnegut himself felt staring out over the rubble just over 60 years prior. The city, a safe haven in the tumultuous state of Germany, lay before him, a vast expanse of wreckage, most of it still on fire.

Slaughterhouse-Five was centered on Vonnegut’s experience in Dresden and fully demonstrated the absurdities of war and how it affected soldiers and citizens alike. In it, Vonnegut draws a tombstone for the main character. The epitaph on the tombstone reads, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Really? In an anti-war novel? Oh, Vonnegut, you are too clever.

Vonnegut spent most of his adult life watching the world around him crumble at the hands of men: World War II, the Nixon administration, global warming. Whatever the subject, Vonnegut infused his writing with his own take on the world. After Vonnegut, science fiction novels were almost expected to contain a deeper message about the ills of society.

Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, reflected his belief that in the future, everything would be mechanized and industry’s use for people would dwindle. Vonnegut once said, “Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie, but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again.” Vonnegut’s world was a throwback to simpler times, when the polar icecaps weren’t melting, when people were unified, and the government was just. He got this message across, not just in Player Piano, but also in novels like Jailbird, Cat’s Cradle, and, of course, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Did Vonnegut draw inspiration to write Player Piano from his time at Carnegie Mellon? Probably not, but interestingly enough, Carnegie Mellon happens to be an institution that regards technology very highly. Thankfully, and I think Vonnegut would agree, it values people more.

Vonnegut’s novels were powerful, but they didn’t change the reality of things. Wars raged, people died, and the environment suffered. Vonnegut, who failed at suicide in 1984, reflected on the death of friend Ernest Hemingway, saying, “When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon.” But Vonnegut had a backup plan. He tried to smoke himself to death. It didn’t work. In a Rolling Stone interview given last year, Vonnegut revealed his plan to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, saying, “... I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn’t work. Now I’m forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, ‘Colon.’ ”

Vonnegut’s last book, a collection of short essays titled A Man Without A Country, was so named because the America of Vonnegut’s youth was gone. He was a stranger in his own country, alienated by politics, the government, and society. Most of the essays in the book are about Vonnegut’s beef with these same things.

Vonnegut was much more than a person. He represented a time and place when America was losing faith in itself — a time that parallels our own. Vonnegut gave a face to what countless disillusioned Americans were slowly coming to realize. We’ve fucked the planet, and ourselves. There’s no way to fix it. Vonnegut said it straight. He didn’t try to shelter his readers, or tell them everything was going to be fine, because it wasn’t. People realized that fact too late.