Another Prophet Dies: Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

We owe it to him and to ourselves to go back and take a good hard look at what he created out of the adspeak and hyperbole that passes for discourse in American life.
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Kurt Vonnegut may have stopped writing novels but the ones he wrote and left us will live on. We owe it to him and to ourselves to go back and take a good hard look at what he created out of the adspeak and hyperbole that passes for discourse in American life.

Vonnegut was an advertising copywriter before he became a best-selling novelist. He learned how advertisers manipulate language and he applied those lessons in his novels. It may be the reason so many dismissed his work as being too fast and loose with story ideas and not deep enough on the emotional level.

Through this use of the language, though, Vonnegut was able to embed himself into our contemporary lives, especially into the hopes and fears of the American male. Not by describing their life in bars or behind bars, though Vonnegut did do that too, but by his awareness of the ways in which consumer society has effectively co-opted the very souls of his fellow countrymen as well as his characters and perverted them. It is striking how by writing about male losers, by making them not only humorous but frightening, their dilemmas are eviscerated. In Vonnegut's stories, the resolutions are baffling, ludicrous. They beg credulity. Sort of like life.

During my undergraduate years in the late 1960s, Vonnegut's work stood out from my other hero/writers. It was common then to identify with Salinger's characters whether it was Holden's existential narcissism or the Glass family's meaningless intellectual gifts. But I was drawn more to the end-of-the-world fantasies that Vonnegut served up, his pessimism and anger matched the times. He was funny but he was also, as I believed everyone knew in their heart of hearts, dead right about, for example, the awfulness of the automobile (as in his novel, Breakfast of Champions) and the horrors of war (as in Slaughterhouse Five, which in part describes his time in Dresden as a POW during the fire bombing of the city). Just those two novels alone were enough to convince me that here was a man who had seen it all and knew, as no other writer seemed to grasp, that we were headed for a collision with our own egos as we grasped for everything we could buy and consume in the most narcissistic ways.

To read Vonnegut now, what may strike a reader is how prescient he was. His perception as early as 1973 when Breakfast of Champions was first published that the automobile had been a very bad idea and that it was going to lead us to ruin, was told in a hilariously comic burst of a novel set in an arts festival. He foretold how the automobile and its reliance on fossil fuels would kill the planet. While he was making these predictions that no one took seriously then, he was also pioneering the use of recurring characters within his larger body of work along with graphic design elements to illustrate his stories giving the whole book an R. Crumb look. He was not just writing humor for its own sake, but using it as a prophet may to show us all how we were headed towards ruin based on our hubris. Vonnegut knew that our corruption was a species-wide affliction: That we were doomed to live on a dying planet whose destruction we all participated in.

In the early pages of Breakfast of Champions (a wonderful play with the advertising slogan for a cereal), he describes a dying planet called Lingo-Three "whose inhabitants resembled American automobiles." This planet is visited by space travelers, tiny little beings who are asked to take an automobile baby with them because the creatures were dying out: "they had destroyed their planet's resources, including its atmosphere."

These little space travelers were too small to take an actual car with them but they kept the ideas of the automobile alive and when they arrived on Earth, they told "the Earthlings about the automobiles. [They] did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth."

Vonnegut wanted us to own up to the words we use and the ideas those words convey which are either bitterly empty or useless to us. It is not because we are incapable of understanding that the automobile culture we have been raised on can be proven to be wrong and bad for us that we won't let go. No, Vonnegut has said, we won't give it up because we are indiscriminate in our belief in ideas. And ideas are dangerous, can kill us and are killing us. While the words we use to describe all of these concepts might like to escape and be set free, we won't let them go.

Vonnegut was clear that it is by language that governments manipulate their citizens. By exposing the ways in which we have internalized the language of the advertising people who sell us breakfast cereals along with political candidates, Vonnegut made an important contribution to our understanding of the world in which we live, if only we could pay attention to the words he used and how he used them.

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