Sunday, December 08, 2019

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

One of the pleasures of growing older is revisiting items from our youth. I am currently rereading the works of Kurt Vonnegut. This adventure was kicked off, in part, by the realization that now, at age 60, if I was asked to name my favorite Kurt Vonnegut book, I would say without hesitation, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, but I would be unable to tell you only the vaguest outlines of the plot. This seemed to me to be a flaw in my existence that was within my power to correct. I went to work.

I began, not with ROSEWATER, but with a book called BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, a collection ironically subtitled as being a collection of Vonnegut's uncollected early fiction. I found the stories to be surprisingly normal and perhaps unsurprisingly, quite good. I also picked up KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS, which is a wonderful collection of his correspondence, and the delightful biography/reading guide UNSTUCK IN TIME: A JOURNEY THROUGH KURT VONNEGUT'S LIFE AND NOVELS. After completing BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, I set to work reading chapters of UNSTUCK together with the letters and the novels in the order they were written.

By now you may be wondering why I am telling you all this on a bicycle blog. I will make this clear in a few minutes, but I feel I have to tell you bit more about my journey. It's been quite fascinating, I thought I was proceeding chronologically forward, but it seems I've become unstuck in time.


Vonnegut's first novel, PLAYER PIANO is all about his time at General Electric (he worked in the PR department) and it is both a cautionary tale about workers being displaced by automation and perils of revolution. Parts of it read a hell of a lot like Andrew Yang's stump speeches. Kurt complained (I'm paraphrasing here), "I just wrote about what I saw at GE and they told me what I wrote was Science Fiction. That's how I became a Science Fiction writer." PLAYER PIANO is also what I would call 'fairly normal." The wildest parts are things that really happened at GE.

His second novel THE SIRENS OF TITAN is really the dawn of the Vonnegut we'd all come to know: weird space aliens, senseless war, a silly putty view of time. It's the early novel that almost all Vonnegut fans have read. I'd forgotten how good it was.

For his third novel, Vonnegut is back on earth with a really powerful story. I don't think I ever read this one in my youth. That was a mistake I'm glad I've now corrected. MOTHER NIGHT is a memoir of spy, an American who worked under deep cover as a Nazi propagandist. The question at the heart of the novel is "was he too good at his job?" This one is a real page turner, I plowed through it in a day.

Next up was CAT'S CRADLE, the book I probably remembered the best, the one that a lot of Vonnegut fans recall, the one with Ice Nine. It holds up quite well to a reread.

And finally I was up to GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, which asks the question "is a man crazy to give away his wealth or is a society that hoards wealth crazy?" I think I first read this book when I was fifteen years old. I was cheering for Eliot Rosewater then and 45 years later I'm happy to report that I still am.

And then I was up to SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. It took Vonnegut decades to write it and Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time. It has the horrors of war and I'm sure it's his masterpiece, but I don't think it shaped me and shook me the way some of Vonnegut's other books did. So it goes.


The way I'm rereading the books is an order I recommend unless you are a fourteen year old boy. I was a fourteen year old boy when I first read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. It's vulgar, it's stupid, it's juvenile. I remember loving it as a kid and now in 2019 being about so many pages in sixty-year-old me was thinking, "man, this is horrible." And then, Kurt Vonnegut, who is a character in his own novel, says "hang on, I know this is horrible, but I'm going somewhere..." and he is and I hang in and I'm unstuck and I'm fourteen and sixty and gosh darn it he's made me young again. He couldn't do it for Kilgore Trout, but he did it for me. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

But what does this have to do with a bike blog?

I'm glad you asked.

Kilgore Trout wrote a novel that Kurt Vonnegut tells us about in BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Trout's novel PLAGUE ON WHEELS describes a dying planet called Lingo-Three whose inhabitants resemble American Automobiles. They ate fossil fuels. The creatures were dying because they'd destroyed their planet's atmosphere. A tiny space traveler named Kago visited their planet before they all died and while he could not save them, he vowed to tell others in the universe about them so they would not be forgotten.

Kago came to Earth and in all innocence told Earthlings about automobiles. Vonnegut/Trout tells us, "Kago 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." Also "Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity."

In 1973, this idea immunized 14-year-old Kent against the lure of automobiles. I never saw them as freedom machines, I saw them as folly. And 2019 Kent sees in the previous paragraph a very clear articulation of why he ran away screaming when he first encountered Facebook many years ago.


"Within a century of little Kago's arrival on earth, according to Trout's novel, every form of life on that once peaceful and moist and nourishing blue-green ball was dying or dead. Everywhere there were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshipped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything."

Kilgore Trout showed me that cars don't make sense and while I did get a driver's licence at sixteen and did for a few years own and drive a few cars, I ultimately left them behind. I haven't driven or owned a car in over three decades.

Similarly, I think it was an echo of Eliot Rosewater who told me I could be happy making my living with bicycles instead of continuing in the world where bits and bytes add up to big bucks. As my friend Mark said to me at the time, "If you can get used to making a whole lot less money, you can work in my bike shop." It turns out I could.

My great Vonnegut reread continues. I'm up to SLAPSTICK now. I will keep on rolling.

Kent Peterson
Eugene, OR USA


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the write-up. Will try to read the books in the order you described.

Kent Peterson said...

Update as of 2/16/2020. I'm done with all the novels and UNSTUCK IN TIME. Currently halfway through LETTERS and still have some unread short stories & non-fiction of Vonnegut's to read.

This has been so very worthwhile. ROSEWATER is still my favorite Vonnegut novel, with JAILBIRD and BLUEBEARD being delightful surprises that are now high on my favored list.

Vonnegut is also one hell of a letter writer. The collection of his letters is a real gem.