In a 2004 Paris Review interview, Haruki Murakami explained:
I liked to read Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan while I was a college student. They had a sense of humor, and at the same time what they were writing about was serious. I like those kind of books. The first time I read Vonnegut and Brautigan I was shocked to find that there were such books! It was like discovering the New World.
Murakami identified something essential in Vonnegut, a tension created by blending humor with serious themes and topics as well as Vonnegut’s ability to shuffle non-fiction and fiction in his novels like a seasoned magician.
In fact, Gregory D. Sumner catalogues the gradual emergence of Vonnegut as a thinly fictionalized character in his own novels, notably by his most celebrated work, Slaughterhouse-Five: “The opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five annihilates the boundary between fiction and autobiography, inviting us into Vonnegut’s uncertainty about just what he has written. It is a dance, rather than an exercise in cold objectivity” (p. 126).
From this narrative ambiguity of genre, Vonnegut is often characterized as post-modern. And while there may be some waffling about details or accuracy, Vonnegut is quite certain—uncharacteristic for actual post-modern writers—about some foundational ideals, although even then he makes his most sacred pronouncements in the most challenging ways.
Vonnegut reveled in playing the free thinker and atheist as he also referenced Jesus—a common routine in his speeches—and his persona in his speeches and non-fiction was certainly as much fabrication as Vonnegut. But the novels and their blend of memoir and fiction create and sustain the most tension.
Slaughterhouse-Five presented Vonnegut a nearly insurmountable task of maintaining his joke-based writing pattern against the great human tragedy of World War II. This attempt to write a novel about being a POW during the fire bombing of Dresden, in fact, becomes the opening chapter of the novel that doesn’t genuinely start until Chapter 2. And in this first chapter while visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his war experience:
“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.
“What?” I said.
“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood….
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise:…
“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.'”
She was my friend after that. (pp. 18-19)
Several years before his Dresden novel garnered him fame, Vonnegut had offered what I think is his central children’s crusade: a paean to kindness, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
The titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘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 about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)
On November 11, 2013, the day of Vonnegut’s birth, while we who love his work raise our eyes to the heavens and hope he is in fact Resting In Peace, we might honor him by heeding those words, crafted in the glorious blasphemy that makes Vonnegut Vonnegut.
For Further Reading
21st Century “Children’s Crusade”: A Curriculum of Peace Driven by Critical Literacy [Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), January 2103]