Essays By Kurt Vonnegut

, “is reread him at thirty-eight.” If that was true, I wondered as I opened the first two volumes of the Library of America’s ongoing series of the complete novels, then what of Vonnegut at a decade older still?The two are linked, of course, as items on the syllabus of adolescent male Well, if I’ve grown older and more respectable, then so has Kurt Vonnegut.

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It poses Vonnegut’s essential question: What are people for? The story moves from one intensely spotlit moment to the next, one idea to the next, without delay or filler.

The prose is equally efficient, with a scalding syncopated wit: “‘I told her that you and she were to be married on Mars.’ He shrugged.

Beneath its darkness and sadness and savagery, the novel unfolds as a continuous experience of wonder. “Things, gentlemen, are ripe for a phony Messiah,” says a character in .

Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility.

(Shields’s biography is badly written and none too penetrating in its literary insights, but it seems to have been thoroughly researched and is, in any case, the only one we have so far.) After a few increasingly sour years puffing nuclear power and home appliances—“Progress Is Our Most Important Product,” went the company slogan—Vonnegut decided to imagine what the future General Electric was trying to create would actually look like.

As its title suggests, describes a society in which the vast majority of people have been rendered obsolete by machines.

He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway.

Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control.

Or as he puts it in , “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters.

Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L.


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