(Published in the Business Standard, April 16, 2007)
“Please, please, please. Nobody else die!” That was the first line of the tribute Kurt Vonnegut wrote when his friend, the poet Allen Ginsburg, died.
Vonnegut never intended to outlast his fellow hell-raisers, from Ginsburg to William Burroughs to Joseph Heller, but he did, until he took a fall down his stairs a few weeks ago and went, reasonably quietly, in his eighties. A thousand obituary writers and bloggers dusted off Vonnegut’s catchphrase, the one that became the refrain of the cult novel Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes, Kurt, they said. So it goes.
Vonnegut could have, but didn’t, to his astonishment and everyone else’s, died at several points of his often embattled life. There was the time in 2000 when his house caught fire, and he survived potential death by smoke inhalation. It would have been a “shapely” death, he said later.
In 1984, he used alcohol and pills to try and kill himself, but survived the attempted suicide. He often joked about how he botched the job, but suicides littered his life. His mother committed suicide when he was in his early twenties. So did some of his friends: “Suicide is the punctuation mark at the end of many artistic careers,” he said once. And in one of his more off-the-wall pieces, Vonnegut wrote about the “final” conversation he had with his fictional creation, Kilgore Trout.
“Trout committed suicide by drinking Drano at midnight on October 15 in Cohoes, New York, after a female psychic using tarot cards predicted that the environmental calamity George W. Bush would once again be elected president…,” Vonnegut added in a helpful editorial note.
Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five in 1969, 24 years after he had been an unwilling witness to the firebombing of Dresden, on February 13, 1945. Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war, imprisoned beneath the city; when he and his fellow prisoners came out, they found no city left. They buried corpses for the next week.
Billy Pilgrim, the hapless protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, was also a survivor of Dresden in Vonnegut’s version, a man “unstuck in time”. Kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, exhibited with a movie star called Montana Wildhack, Billy’s time trouble helps him understand the key to surviving being human—if all moments in time are unpredictable, then no one moment is more important than another, not even the moment of death. When he is assassinated, by a raving lunatic, Billy’s final words are: “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”
There could be no better survival manual for the twentieth century than Slaughterhouse Five. Generations of college students instinctively gravitate to the book, and those adults bright enough to recognize that the endless drudgery of life—the bills, the taxes, the kids, the job—is not what we were solely meant for hold on to Pilgrim’s progress as though it were some kind of talisman.
Vonnegut shambled through his own life with the aid of his fictional alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut, who had done his share of churning out stories to pay the bills, described Trout: “Trout’s employer and co-workers had no idea that he was a writer. No reputable publisher had ever heard of him, for that matter, even though he had written one hundred and seventeen novels and two thousand short stories by the time he met Dwayne…. He thus got in touch with a firm called World Classics Library, which published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California. They used his stories, which usually didn’t even have women in them, to give bulk to books and magazines of salacious pictures.”
Trout’s masterpieces included such works as ‘The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece’, ‘ Gilgongo!’ and ‘Oh Say Can You Smell’. Many years after Kilgore Trout had found a faithful following, fans were surprised to find Venus on the Half-Shell, a novel written by Kilgore Trout. Some speculated that this was one of Vonnegut’s japes, but the novel was the work of fellow science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer. Vonnegut wasn’t amused; he asked Farmer not to continue with the ‘Kilgore Trout’ series. “I understand he was really burned up about my decision. I heard he had made more money in that one ‘Kilgore Trout year’ than he had ever made before — in case you’re too polite to ask, I didn’t get any of the money,” Vonnegut said in an interview.
By the end of his life, the creativity was drying up. Timequake, one of Vonnegut’s last published works, was nothing like Slaughterhouse Five, or Player Piano or the short stories in collections like Welcome to the Monkey House. But Vonnegut had given us enough. “I want to stay as close on the edge as I can without going over,” he made Finnerty say in Player Piano. “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. Big, undreamed-of things—the people on the edge see them first.”