Essays By Kurt Vonnegut

Or as he puts it in , “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters.

Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L.

“It’s the ), Vonnegut knew about pushing an audience’s buttons.

Later, when he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he won his students’ reluctant allegiance by eschewing aesthetic pieties and teaching them how to grab a reader’s attention.

Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance?

There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted.He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway.Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control.For Fate (the determinations of divine providence), Vonnegut substitutes its opposite, Fortune (chance, chaos, luck). Reversal is the novel’s governing device, and irony its master trope. Even the prose has its falls, as moments of intensity tumble, with a flick of Vonnegut’s trademark bathos, into the banal: Constant sank into a wing chair again.He had to look away from all that beauty in order to keep from bursting into tears.The protagonist, Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world; .” And Salo, the Tralfamadorian robot astronaut, three-eyed, three-legged, four and a half feet tall, the color of a tangerine and more human than any human.Vonnegut’s imagination would henceforth be his superpower.Everything is automated, and a privileged caste of engineers, selected through a ruthless system of aptitude testing, runs the show. The first page contains fourteen paragraphs, none of them longer than two sentences, some of them as short as five words.The average person, benevolently provided for by his betters, lacks nothing other than purpose, dignity, self-respect and meaningful labor. “He just finished his National General Classification Tests,” says a character about his son. There were only twenty-seven openings, and six hundred kids trying for them.” With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity, the novel is, if anything, more relevant than ever now. It’s like he’s placing pieces on a game board—so, and so, and so.In the novel’s context, the notion comes as an immense relief. Rumfoord is controlled by the Tralfamadorians, and so is all of human history.Everybody thinks he has free will, and everybody’s secretly controlled by someone else. This is one of the great terrors in Vonnegut’s work: the terror of regimentation (the Army of Mars, with its vast ranks of remote-controlled soldiers, human machines), the terror of manipulation by unseen forces. The Army of Mars, which had seemed so granitic, turns out to be flimsy as paper.

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