Today would have been the 94th birthday of beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Throughout his career as a writer and a human being, Vonnegut shouldered many labels: sci-fi writer, satirist, humorist, humanist, political activist, and cranky old man. Luckily for us, he was all of those things and more.
But best of all, Kurt Vonnegut was a man who reminded us that our primary function on Earth is to “fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
Like his meta-fictional counterpart, Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s approach to science fiction eschews realistic science in favor of big, hit-you-over-the-head metaphors. In The Sirens of Titan, the flying saucers sent to invade Earth have only one type of control: a large button which turns them “ON” or “OFF.” In Galapagos, the narrator of the novel magically inserts an asterisk before the name of every character, just before they’re about to die. Vonnegut was a self-taught writer, and enjoyed getting a reader’s attention in any imaginative way he could, narrative rules be damned.
His most famous book, Slaughter-House Five, begins its fictional story (though in its second chapter) with the lines: “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has been un-stuck in time.” Kurt Vonnegut is the consummate raconteur, inviting you into his living room, asking you to sit down and listen to this incredible story that he’s just got to get off his chest. Like Vonnegut, I don’t think we experience our lives in a linear fashion, really. At least not inside of our heads. It’s a big jumble of feelings and confusion and fantasies all colliding together at once. And with Slaughter-House Five, Vonnegut showed the world that a novel could be a kind of metaphor for that experience.
The blending of autobiography with fiction, the notion that emotional truths are more important than factual ones pervade the essence of what Vonnegut was good at. He not only used science fiction ideas like time travel to make big points about how we really experience life, but also understood that stories and characters are just as important to our sanity as “real” things. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut casually reveals that he, the author, is a character in the novel. By the end of the book, he releases his most famous fictional creation—Kilgore Trout—to his own devices. Tragically, Vonnegut forgets about one of his other fictional creations, a dog called Kazakh, who turns to attack the fictional version of the author in a strange fictional junkyard.
On a basic level, reading Kurt Vonnegut is immediately the most fun experience you’ve ever had in your life because the prose goes down quickly, makes you laugh, and contains stories with characters like you’ve never experienced. But prolonged exposure to Kurt Vonnegut will change you in other ways. It will make you think more inwardly, more creatively, and probably best of all, more peacefully. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut makes perhaps the most profound and simple statement in all of his books:
“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, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
And all of us are probably a little kinder thanks to his imagination and gifts.
Happy Birthday, Kurt! We know you’re farting around out there somewhere in the universe, and having a wonderful time!
This article was originally published November 11, 2013.