Great Books: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Posted on 4th April 2004 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Born in 1922, Kurt Vonnegut is a representative of the “Greatest Generation,” that group who saved the Earth from evil in WWII; yet, Vonnegut’s writing style speaks best to my own generation “X.” He is funny, edgy, off-color, yet poignant, matching the minds of a Generation skeptical of authority and a tendency to ridicule the status quo. The quick-witted, tangential, precision and directness of his style, given in short sentences, in short chapters, and short books are perfect reading for the short attention-spans of modern minds.

Vonnegut attributes his straightforward, unadorned writing style to his time working as a reporter. He gets to the point without flowery language or much description, and my generation really appreciates that. Just give us the goods and get out of here.! : )

What genre does Vonnegut fall into? There are elements of Science Fiction in his stories, but Vonnegut has expressed disdain for SF and those elements of his novels never run the plot. When characters are stuck in time-loops, or feeding aliens with sound waves, or living non-sequentially, or evolving on an island for a million years, or encountering any of the multitude of other devices Vonnegut cooks up, the focus remains on the human dimension of the situation. Even when establishing the most absurd and improbable situations for satirical purposes, they are only to explore the human impact.

That is Vonnegut’s greatest strength as a writer, the understanding of his characters he so easily evokes in his readers. From the wealthy fool to the maniacal genius, we are made to love them all. They make guest appearances in other books or, like the author’s doppelganger, Kilgore Trout, become a reoccurring theme.

Possibly my favorite aspect of Vonnegut’s books is the inability to transfer them to film. “SlaughterHouse Five,” “Breakfast of Champions,” and “Mother Night” were all fantastic books, but they only made mediocre, if not awful, movies. How can this be?

Was it the directing? Keith Gordon and Alan Rudolph are both competent directors. George Roy Hill can even be considered a great director. All have created great films. So was it the acting then? Nick Nolte, Bruce Willis, and Albert Finney are all great actors.

Was it the story? Directors and Actors can make terrible movies out of great stories, but you can’t make a great movie out of a terrible story. The problem here is that these books of Vonnegut’s were all fantastic, and the movies remained true to the action that takes place in them. That is where the problem lies.

The action is only one dimension of Kurt Vonnegut’s storytelling, the other dimension is his narrative on the action. Without Vonnegut’s witty commentary, Mother Night is an incredibly sad series of events. Breakfast of Champions is a little too weird for its own good without Vonnegut there to hold our hand through the story, his tone assuring us that it’s supposed to be odd. Without Vonnegut weaving the tale, we lose the point of view that makes us understand the story.

I love Vonnegut because he justifies the existence of the written word.

His writing, however absurd the situations, always expresses deep sentiments about the human condition. Vonnegut is something of a humanist. I don’t want to go so far as to say he is definitely a humanist, because, like his rejection of being labeled a Science Fiction author, Vonnegut also contradicts the notion that he is a humanist; but Vonnegut does have a great love for the human race and his writing reflects a deep concern about its direction.

As I said before, the greatest strength of Vonnegut’s storytelling is his attention to the human dimension. Through all of the cynicism about humanity put forth in his stories, this author cannot or will not simply accept the bad things that happen to his characters. He simply cares about them too much, and it shows.

All of the humorous cynicism about the state of the human race that Vonnegut provides us with seems to lose its sting when we know, knowing the author, that there is one human being with so much love for humanity.

Other Resources

The Best Kurt Vonnegut Resource on the Web:

The Official, not as good, Kurt Vonnegut Website:

A Collection of Critical Analysis of Vonnegut’s works:

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