On Kurt Vonnegut

I recently had the pleasure of conducting, for the first time, a chronological read-through of the published novels of Kurt Vonnegut. What a lovely and depressing and altogether rewarding endeavor it turned out to be. I highly recommend it, especially to all would-be human beings.

Vonnegut wrote fourteen feature-length novels in all. The first was published in 1952, when he was five years younger than I am today. The last came in 1997, when I was still a child. He died just a decade after that, which is nearly sixteen years ago now.

The passage of time is strange. Vonnegut taught me that.

You could say I was late to the party on Kurt Vonnegut, who is beloved by many. I usually am with these sorts of things. But a fashionably late entrance, I’ve come to think, is just fine. It might be better than fine, especially if you plan to go on living for a long time. The good music and food and people at the party will still be going strong.

Procured below is a selection of my favorite quotations from the five-decade span of Vonnegut’s work, one from each book. Some are obvious. Others are funny or poignant or pessimistic. All are meaningful in some way or another. To me they are, anyway. A handful of the best will stick with me forever.

As to what else I have gleaned from this marathon exercise, I confess it has become painfully clear to me that Vonnegut’s unique literary style has already infected my own voice as a writer. So be it! It would be hard to spend nearly four thousand pages with someone so striking and come out squeaky clean. It would probably be a little sad, too.

And this is good, I hope. If my own writing has always been a purplish shade of verbose, I can think of worse writing tics than meaningful brevity to shamelessly ape. I’d be grateful, too, to come away with some modicum of the man’s impeccable sense of humor, irony, wit, and, above all else, basic human decency.

It’s really not much to ask.

Anyway, about the quotations: Here they are, presented in order of publication. I’ll leave you to guess at my very favorite.

And the lawyers! Of course, I say it’s a pretty good thing what happened to them, because it was a bad thing for them, which couldn’t help to be a good thing for everybody else.

– Player Piano (1952)

I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.

– The Sirens of Titan (1959)

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

– Mother Night (1962)

The Fourteenth Book (of Bokonon) is entitled, ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’

It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it: ‘Nothing.’

– Cat’s Cradle (1963)

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

– God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

– Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Roses are red,
And ready for plucking,
You’re sixteen,
And ready for high school.

– Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go around looking for it, and I think it can be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency’.

– Slapstick (1976)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me.

– Jailbird (1979)

My wife has been killed by a machine which should never have come into the hands of any human being. It is called a firearm. It makes the blackest of all human wishes come true at once, at a distance: that something die.

That is evil for you.

We cannot get rid of mankind’s fleetingly wicked wishes. We can get rid of the machines that make them come true.

I give you a holy word: DISARM.

– Deadeye Dick (1982)

So long, old pal. You’re going to a different world now. It’s sure to be a better one, since no other world could be as bad as this one is.

– Galápagos (1985)

Paul Slazinger says, incidentally, that the human condition can be summed up in just one word, and this is the word: Embarrassment.

– Bluebeard (1987)

Our children, full-grown now, can never forgive us for reproducing. What a mess.

– Hocus Pocus (1990)

Pictures are famous for their humanness, and not for their pictureness.

– Timequake (1997)

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