The Survivor  
Kurt Vonnegut's recent novel Timequake is supposed to be his last. But as the writer's own life attests, conjecture hardly makes it so.
By William Rodney Allen

From Gadfly February 1998


The odds were heavily stacked against Kurt Vonnegut's being alive today. But at 75, having lived through the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II, decades of cigarette smoking and drinking, virtual literary evisceration by hostile critics in the 1970s and a suicide attempt in 1984, Vonnegut now stands a good chance of making it to the millennium. So does that make him a "survivor?" Sure it does. As one of Vonnegut's characters ruefully observes in the novel Galapagos, "Everybody who isn't dead yet is a survivor." In terms of the future of his writing career, Vonnegut claims that his recent novel Timequake (his fourteenth) will be his last. But don't count on that. There's life—and perhaps even more fiction—in the old boy yet.

But back to the past. Vonnegut's number was supposed to come up on the night of February 13, 1945 when dozens of British and American bombers flew over the non‑military city of Dresden and dropped both high explosives and incendiary bombs. In the resulting firestorm, over 100,000 people died—more than were killed by either of the atomic bombs dropped later that year on Japan. Private First Class Vonnegut was at ground zero, having been captured in the Battle of the Bulge a few months earlier and sent with other prisoners to Dresden to work in a syrup factory. He lived through the night only because he was housed in one of the few effective bomb shelters in the city—a meat locker sixty feet underground. A quarter century later, Vonnegut would immortalize that improbable haven and what happened after he came out in his wildly popular novel Slaughterhouse‑Five. After the movie version of the novel premiered in 1971, Vonnegut was probably the best‑known writer on earth.

This is an old story to long‑time Vonnegut fans, but one that bears retelling. In fact, Vonnegut experienced all the big events of the last three quarters of this century: the Depression, World War II, the Cold War paranoia and corporate prosperity of the 1950s, the cultural explosion of the 1960s (during which, at the height of his literary fame, he was referred to as "the Pied Piper of youth"), the political and economic disillusionment of the 1970s and the right‑wing resurgence of the 1980s. He wrote about it all in his unmistakably offhand, darkly comic, postmodern style. In Timequake, Vonnegut laments that a writer used to be able to count on his audience to recognize historical allusions to, say, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Nuremberg Trials or even Watergate—but not anymore. What he calls the "eraser" of TV has wiped out historical consciousness on such a large scale that Vonnegut predicts not just the death of the novel, but the dumbing down of culture to the point where humans won't need their oversized brains anymore and will actually start evolving toward being less intelligent—in a sort of mass‑scale "Flowers for Algernon" phenomenon (here, Vonnegut would typically take time out to remind his readers that "Flowers for Algernon" was the story of a retarded man who became a genius in a medical experiment before tragically realizing the effects were only temporary).

But Vonnegut's famous pessimism is always balanced by his persistent effort to push the envelope of pop culture and make it accommodate an impressive array of good old‑fashioned ideas. Inhabiting a cultural space somewhere between a writer's writer full of ideas like Milan Kundera and, say, Michael Crichton, a pedestrian writer who nevertheless presents some interesting quasi‑scientific scenarios, Vonnegut is important precisely because his career has combined a relative sophistication of thought with the ability to reach a huge audience. He has tackled the big subjects of the Holocaust in Mother Night (1962), the postmodern implications of anthropology in Cat's Cradle (1963), post‑war stress syndrome and cosmic relativity in Slaughterhouse‑Five (1969), evolution in Galapagos (1985) and the nature of art in Bluebeard (1987). One would have to think of the recently deceased Carl Sagan to find Vonnegut's equal in the last few decades as a disseminator of scientific ideas to the public. Like Vonnegut, Sagan was a crossover artist himself, trying his predominately scientific hand at fiction in his novel Contact, much as Vonnegut tried his literary one at science in Galapagos.

It's important to recognize that the scientist in Vonnegut puts him in opposition to postmodern academics who believe, following Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, that there is no world outside of language—and that the "discourse" of science in describing that world should be no more "privileged" than that of a psychic surgeon in the Philippines, an astrologer to the stars in Paris or an alleged UFO abductee in Louisiana. While understanding that human values and cultural practices are often arbitrary, nonsensical and mutually contradictory, this does not lead Vonnegut to think that the cosmos is a construct of the human mind. As a Darwinian (a character in Timequake says that he believes in evolution because "it's the only game in town"), Vonnegut believes that we humans evolved in an actual world that shaped us by natural selection, and that language, although an admittedly imperfect map of that world, gets more accurate over time chiefly because of the application of the scientific method. It's one of the ironies of Vonnegut's long career that a significant portion of his readership—and of literary critics writing about his work—don't share these fundamentally empirical views.

Like any popular writer, Vonnegut has had a complex but ultimately symbiotic relationship with the different aspects of his audience: general readers, critics, fellow novelists. He has ridden the roller coaster of literary fame and kept his equilibrium. As a sometime teacher of writing, he's worked with such novelists as Gail Godwin and John Irving. And through his association with PEN (the international writers group), he has been part of the linking up of the world's literary minds in an effort to fight censorship and militarization and promote ecological awareness on our fragile planet. Although he has sourly announced that "the novel is dead," that's just the self‑proclaimed "grumpy old fart" in Vonnegut talking. His brand of inventive, darkly comic, scientifically literate fiction is very much alive in novels like Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

So during his long career, Vonnegut has been around—and what goes around seems to come around. In just the past year, Vonnegut has been visible because of the release of a film version of Mother Night starring Nick Nolte, during a brief hoopla on the Internet (when someone else's column was forwarded around the world identified as Vonnegut's graduation speech at M.I.T., which never happened), and in his disarming commercial for the Discover card in which he mails a book to his real‑life son Mark.

At the movies, on TV or in cyberspace, it's still always good to see Kurt Vonnegut. It would indeed be a great loss to American culture if this latest novel was his last.