Catch a wave, and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.

And catch that wave Kurt Vonnegut did, sitting on top of the world from the early 1960s until his death in 2007. Well, maybe not all the way to 2007. Even as early as the publication of his novel Galápagos, in 1985, the wave was clearly ebbing. But it had been a hell of a ride: over 20 years, during which Kurt Vonnegut drove his quicksilver board through the curl of American literature—our one great novelistic surfer, the dude who made it all look easy. The guy who made it all look cool.

It was 1963 when the Beach Boys recorded “Catch a Wave”—and 1963, as well, when a nearly failed proto-New Wave science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut Jr. made a sudden leap up into mainstream public fame with the publication of a novel called Cat’s Cradle. It’s hard to say quite how the 41-year-old author managed the unpredictable jump. Among science-fiction writers his contemporary Philip K. Dick was (in his own peculiar way) a deeper thinker. The younger Roger Zelazny was slicker. The even-younger Tom Disch was cleverer.

Yes, Vonnegut had managed to produce Player Piano (1952), The Sirens of Titan (1959), and Mother Night (1961), but to read the Library of America’s new collection is to realize that, with Cat’s Cradle, he broke through the limitations of his previous work to find the pounding heart of the American moment—the central beat, the bam-bam pulse of it all. The book sparkled on the page. It popped and glistened, in prose that was some impossible mash of sophisticated and naïve, smart and silly, straightforward and bizarre.

“Call me Jonah,” it opens. “My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

After his service in the Second World War Vonnegut enrolled as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, although by all accounts he was a terrible student. In his 1999 story collection Bagombo Snuff Box he insists on the comic but not entirely believable story that he withdrew after the rejection of his proposed thesis on the parallels between Cubist painting and the American Indian uprisings of the 19th century—an account, apparently, of why Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were just like Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, which the university had the gall to tell him was “unprofessional.”

Perhaps it’s worth noticing, however, that in 1971 Chicago went ahead and gave Vonnegut a master’s degree in anthropology, proposing (and accepting) Cat’s Cradle as an ersatz thesis. What the school was after, of course, was a little of the glory surrounding the man and his public fame. Still, the anthropology department wasn’t exactly wrong: Cat’s Cradle contains a surprising amount of anthropological imagination as it tells the story of a made-up religion called Bokononism and its effect on the final days of the world.

Add in a bit of pop theology, a lot of agitation about the atom bomb, a beach-bum ethic, a smart amateur’s knowledge of science, and a wry sense of the world’s absurdity, and Vonnegut had all the intellectual pieces to make a rich stew of a book. And yet, the funny thing is that Cat’s Cradle, in the central structure of its plot, is essentially a genre novel: no more or less than an Agatha Christie mystery, a Georgette Heyer romance, or a Louis L’Amour western.

Or, of course, a science-fiction story by anyone from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon. Vonnegut was hardly the first to sprawl out in the futuristic genre: From its beginning, science fiction has always been a capacious kind of literature, with plenty of room inside its accounts of what-if technology for a little low-rent philosophy, a bit of recreational theology, and a touch of down-market anthropology. In 1961 Vonnegut himself wrote a sci-fi short story called “Harrison Bergeron,” which has became a libertarian classic—a cacotopian fantasy about an America in which the government creates absolute equality by forcing strong people to carry heavy weights all the time, beautiful people to use masks, and smart people to wear thought-destroying noisemakers in their ears.

In Cat’s Cradle, however, the streams of his imagination coalesced into something that seemed to leave genre fiction far behind. Mostly, that involved the writing, especially Vonnegut’s newfound ability to coin memorable names for his inventions: the seed crystals of ice-nine, which will freeze the world at room temperature, for example, or wampeter, the fundamental purpose of a karass in the religion of Bokononism. Karass, for that matter, by which Vonnegut named a group of people who are, somehow, often unknown to themselves, working to bring about God’s purposes.

The stylistic tics that Vonnegut developed for the book helped as well: the mismatched chapter sizes, the paragraphs of dialogue longer than expository paragraphs from the narrator. Jack Kerouac is buried somewhere in the book’s voice, along with the run-on sentences that Dylan Thomas taught a generation of writers in the 1950s with prose pieces like “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Rolled all together, Cat’s Cradle seemed to emerge as something unique in American literature: fast, wise, cynical, sincere, light, learned, and altogether new.

Funny, too, which is what Vonnegut tried to bring to the forefront in his 1965 followup, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a book about—well, it’s hard to say just what the book is about. Kilgore Trout makes his first appearance, an atheist science-fiction writer (possibly based on Theodore Sturgeon) who wanders through several of Vonnegut’s books. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater he meets Eliot Rosewater, trustee of a philanthropy called the Rosewater Foundation and a man whom the family lawyers are trying to have declared insane. Which he is, of course, but that doesn’t make the family right for having him declared so, and besides, the insane have a kind of wisdom all their own, and . . .

The book is a mess. It would have fallen by the wayside—Vonnegut is much wittier when he isn’t trying to be funny—if he hadn’t followed it with his most famous book four years later. Even the rolling title page conveyed the mad Vonnegut touch: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by “Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod and Smoking Too Much, Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale.”

The science-fiction elements were still present in this tale of Billy Pilgrim, an eye doctor from upstate New York who comes unstuck in time, bouncing randomly back and forth through his life—from the moment he survived the firebombing of Dresden as a young Allied prisoner of war, hiding with his guards in a German slaughterhouse, to the moment he was kidnapped by fourth-dimensional aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The mythopoeic boom in the rat-a-tat prose, as well, with the sad irony of “so it goes,” the antiwar novel’s repeated catchphrase:

My father died many years ago now—of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.

But yet another element had stumbled into Vonnegut’s writing with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: an observational intensity and social comedy that Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King gave that generation of writers. It came to fruition, for Vonnegut, with Slaughterhouse-Five. The book is astonishingly depressing for something so funny. Or maybe, astonishingly comic for something so gloomy. Billy Pilgrim is the most passive character in American fiction, and whether Vonnegut himself is selling America that kind of fatal quietism remains an unanswered question.

He’s certainly selling something in Slaughterhouse-Five. The unnamed narrator intrudes himself into the novel enough to be Vonnegut’s stand-in, the figure who speaks for the author. Of course, Kilgore Trout rambles through the book as well, making strange, wry, and generally pacifist comments, and the science-fiction writer clearly works, in later novels and stories, as Vonnegut’s surrogate.

By any measure, Slaughterhouse-Five is a deeply personal book. The scenes of the prisoners in the firebombed slaughterhouse, for example, are based on Vonnegut’s own harrowing experience as a G.I. in Dresden after his capture. And yet, Slaughterhouse-Five is so personal it becomes impersonal—a book with so many Vonnegut figures walking through it that what’s left is only the book’s simultaneously sad and amusing message that the passage of time is incomprehensible, and free will a story we tell ourselves to stay sane. More or less.

More or less. That’s a Vonnegutian kind of slogan, and as the years went by he increasingly indulged the tics and catches that were, when he was at his best, only the ornaments of his prose. By the end, with Bluebeard in 1987 and Hocus Pocus in 1990, he had become little more than a parody of himself. The simple truth is that he would never again reach the mad bravura of Cat’s Cradle or the passive power of Slaughterhouse-Five. Lots of readers continued to follow him, because he was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and he had seemed to speak for the moment; but there would be no Yeatsian late reblossoming for him, no Dickensian rolling into new territory with each new book.

Breakfast of Champions (1973), with the weakness of its repeated catchphrase “and so on,” was such a disastrous sequel to Slaughterhouse-Five that many reviewers refused to believe that Vonnegut didn’t have some wry, secret purpose in mind. The plot, more or less, involves Kilgore Trout, who comes to give a talk at an arts festival in a small Midwestern city. Along the way, he meets Dwayne Hoover, an insane businessman looking for a message from God.

As it happens, Trout is holding a copy of a science-fiction novel he’s written, which claims that the world is populated by robots and only the reader is a free human being. So he gives it to Dwayne, who naturally takes the book as the message for which he’s been waiting and begins trying to smash open everyone he can get his hands on, to reveal their robotic machinery, until the police catch up with him and haul him away. After which, the narrator of the book appears to Trout and (in a parallel scene) tells him that, as the creator of this fictional world, he’s decided to give Trout, and Trout alone, the gift of free will.

The metafictional elements may have seemed daring at the time, but they’ve aged poorly—and as for the rest of the book, it’s gone as moldy as a bad case of gorgonzola. Vonnegut writes, in the preface to Breakfast of Champions, that he had reached age 50 and needed to “clear his head of all the junk in there.” Which included bad felt-tip drawings, stray characters from past and future novels, and ideas for science-fiction stories he never got around to writing, all dumped into the supposed oeuvre of Kilgore Trout.

It all seemed kind of funny, but it was the comic filigree of Vonnegut without much of the base metal that actually made him an important writer. And from there—through Slapstick (1976), Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), and so on—each novel seemed less important. Less substantial, less real, less pointed.

Each was still an event, though. The reputation he built in the 1960s remained with him, and he stayed the grizzled, silver-maned man of the moment, our mustachioed icon of hip writing, till his death in 2007 at age 84. He’d caught the wave with Cat’s Cradle back in 1963, and there he stayed, as, in many ways, he deserved to.

Sittin’ on top of the world.

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.

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