Kurt Vonnegut was part of my formative reading years, my final transition into literature. The sequence: The Hardy Boys detective mysteries (elementary school) to assigned texts (high school) and then to The Lord of the Rings and poetry (Bible college) and then the rest of the world of literature (university). That’s not to say that Tolkien and poetry aren’t literature, or that Tolkien isn’t poetic, but until I met John Irving (in A Prayer for Owen Meany), Joseph Heller (in Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut (in The Slaughter-House Five), I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to find, much less read, a book.
It seems to me that every university literature student goes through a Kurt Vonnegut phase. I’m not sure why, exactly, but it might be because he’s a little bit edgy and his works still have an air of counterculture about them. Also, his books tend to be short and easy to read, making for an easy merge into the world of words and story.
The Slaughter-House Five was the first book by Kurt Vonnegut I read and I was hooked. I loved that book. It was the first book that ever made me laugh out loud (the second was Catch-22. Both books, ironically, are about war). After that I went into a Buy Every Vonnegut Book I Can Get My Hands On. I bought them used, I bought them new, I didn’t keep up with the reading.
Vonnegut altered my view of literature, so that I no longer looked at it as an inaccessible, pretentious form, but one which could be free and quirky and fun.
In my third year of university I wrote a fifteen-page paper on The Slaughter-House Five entitled, with the appropriate pretension of academe,
So It Goes:
An Examination of Time, War, and the Representation Thereof
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five
When I got the paper back, the title had been corrected to
So It Goes:
An Examination of Time, War, and the Representation
Thereof Iin Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five
Digression 1: The professor had also written this below the title: “No cover pg; use MLA format”. I find it amusing that even though the professor was so grammatically precise, using the ever-enigmatic semi-colon, he still abbreviated “page” and neglected to end the sentence with a period.
Digression 2: I was in university for four-and-a-half years and I never managed to figure out what the hell my professors were talking about when they referred to the “MLA format”. It seemed to mean something different in every class, and no previous professor had complained about having a cover page. I guess I could have opened one of my grammar handbooks, but ignorance was easier.
Back to Kurt Vonnegut: the paper was written for English 317: “American Literature: Modern to Post-Modern”. I originally signed up for the class because Vonnegut’s Bluebeard was on the syllabus and I was in the middle of my Vonnegut obsession. Plus, I had already read Bluebeard and would have one less thing to read that semester. Come term time, the syllabus was changed and Bluebeard was replaced with Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories. Alas.
The next Vonnegut book I read was Breakfast of Champions, which seemed to be everyone’s favourite. I read it twice after that and, although it was a reasonably pleasant read, I still didn’t understand the fuss. I’ve been meaning to read it again.
Then I read Cat’s Cradle (excellent; Ice-nine), Galapagos (pretty good), Bluebeard (not bad, but I didn’t get it) and was stopped dead by Hocus Pocus. It was a bestseller—the book all his other book covers referred to—but I liked it least of all. The upshot was that it introduced me to the wonderfully sanitary phrase “that’s when the excrement hit the air conditioning.”
Perhaps now is the time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books again. I’ve got several unread works packed for the move. Perhaps I’ll read them as they get unpacked.