Because I was travelling, I missed the sad news of the death of Kurt Vonnegut last Wednesday.
One of the foremost North American authors of the twentieth century, Vonnegut began by writing science fiction novels, but he was never bound by genre; his real subject was the irony of existence. In his best books, he approaches the world almost like a children's author, explaining every detail, no matter how familiar, as if it's new - jerking the reader out of their settled attitudes and forcing them to view the world afresh. There's a simplicity, dry humour and warmth to his work, but he never flinches from dealing with the worst aspects of life. Vonnegut was a life-long atheist, and his fictional world is an uncaring mechanism in which neither virtue is rewarded nor evil punished; the characters are elevated or crushed at the whim of blind fate. Nevertheless, his novels are among the funniest I've ever read, and are filled with hope that life persists and that contentment, if not happiness, can be found.
Self Portrait by Kurt Vonnegut, Illustration for his novel Breakfast of Champions, 1973.
Vonnegut's life and work were shaped by his experiences in the Second World War; as a prisoner of war in Germany, he survived the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied forces. This cataclysmic event was at the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five (1969), in which the main character, one Billy Pilgrim, comes unhitched in time and experiences his own life as a series of moments in random order. Vonnegut had previously explored this idea of being adrift in time in The Sirens of Titan (1959) and returned to it in his last novel, Timequake (1997); for us comics-types it's worth noting that it was also the inspiration for the all-powerful but chronologically-challenged character Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen (Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons, DC Comics 1985).
Though he began writing in the 1950's, Vonnegut didn't really find a distinctive voice until 1963 with Cat's Cradle (supposedly his favourite of his own novels). My personal favourite is his 1973 effort Breakfast Of Champions, a riotous mess of a novel in which no one character is meant to be more important that any other, though a lot of time is given to Vonnegut's fictional alter-ego Kilgore Trout (an unsuccessful science-fiction author who remains utterly obscure because his work is only ever published as filler in porn magazines), and in which he introduces all his (male) characters by giving the dimensions of their penises. However, his best work is probably to be found in the four later novels published between 1982 and 1990; Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard and Hocus Pocus; of these I consider Galapagos to be the finest expression of his ironic take on life.
If I were back at home with access to my books, this post would be packed to the gills with quotations so you could see exactly what I mean; as it is, I can only advise anyone who hasn't read him to go seek him out. If you have read his work, you'll already know what we've lost.