Kurt Vonnegut, one of the great American novelists, is dead. It’s not surprising – he was 84 and had not been well – and yet it’s shocking. We’ve been a world without much Vonnegut for years, as his health declined and his writing did as well, but it’s weird to think that we’re now living in a totally post-Vonnegut world.
Vonnegut began his career writing paperback originals that were often dismissed as mere science fiction, but he eventually came to be seen and understood as the giant talent he was. Vonnegut was very much a modern century Mark Twain, and his voice was, in many ways, the voice of the last half of the 20th century. What’s amazing is how his earliest works, like Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, are still completely relevant and current today.
I can’t do Vonnegut justice in a quick obituary like this, plus his death has actually left me a little broken up. Go read his books: they’re almost all great, although I hold Breakfast of Champions, published in the year that I was born, in a special place; it’s the greatest work of contemporary fiction that I have ever read, a book that is fearless and honest and heartbreaking and experimental and one that I have reread time and again.
There have been a couple of Vonnegut books and stories turned into movies – Mother Night is probably the best effort, and Harrison Bergeron, but it’s amazing that the Breakfast of Champions film didn’t kill him a decade ago – and he memorably showed up in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School as himself. When assigned a paper on the novels of Vonnegut, Rodney hires the man himself to do it and his teacher realizes that Rodney didn’t write it, but that (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘whoever did doesn’t know anything about Kurt Vonnegut.’
Vonnegut’s passing won’t be felt in literature – his best days were behind him – but it’s like another signpost on our way out of the post-WWII era. It’s worth noting that Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s greatest and most persistent literary creation and his alter ego, also died at age 84. That is if you go by the chronology in Timequake as opposed to the one in Breakfast of Champions, and I have to say that I think Vonnegut would want us to go with the one that worked best.