Chronicling the rise and fall of the novelist-celebrity.
Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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.