Do People Still Read Kurt Vonnegut?

I think they do.  This column from Philly.com’s Sandy Bauers is a sort of reminisence of reading Kurt Vonnegut, the humorist/science fiction/political novelist and essayist.  Bauer’s hook is the release of some new audio versions of Vonnegut’s work, but the writer nicely recaptures the pleasure of reading him back in the day. 

Until I read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, no novel made me laugh harder than Breakfast of Champions.  Reading Slaughterhouse-Five at age 14 influenced my attitudes just as much as the Kinks, the Beatles or R. Crumb.

Vonnegut’s politics put him squarely in the progressive protest camp, but with a sense of irony, skepticism and empathy totally lacking in today’s desperately bitter progressive “netroots.”  Vonnegut is never embittered by his adversaries; he’s more amused by them, even when they hold the power to destroy the world (and in some of his novels, do so).  And, as Bauers illustrates in this byte, Vonnegut is a bit shy about making utopian pronouncements of what would happen if, perchance, he were to win the day:

In Breakfast of Champions, which Stanley Tucci reads with delicious cunning, the obscure author Kilgore Trout visits a Midwest arts festival.

“Oh, Mr. Trout,” the hotel clerk gushes. “Teach us to sing and dance and laugh and cry. We’ve tried to survive so long on money and sex and envy and real estate and football and basketball and automobiles and television and alcohol and sawdust and broken glass.”

Trout, disheveled, the pockets of his oversized and threadbare tuxedo bulging with mothballs, is incredulous. “Open your eyes,” he says. “Would a man nourished by beauty look like this? You have nothing but desolation and desperation here.”

“I see exactly what I expect to see,” the clerk retorts. “I see a man who is terribly wounded because he has dared to pass through the fires of truth to the other side.”

I also recall an exchange from Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut depicts himself telling someone he is writing an anti-war novel.   “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier novel instead?”  This was at the height of the Vietnam War protests, and sure, they were plenty angry.  But Vonnegut’s gentle fatalism about humanity was part of the scene, in a way you never see now.  

Imagine Kos or Atrios or their commenters having Vonnegut’s humility and sense of humor.  You can’t.  The netroots is a field where no irony grows.  But without that leavening ability to see the ridiculousness on all sides, they are left preaching to their increasingly rabid choir and with zero influence outside of it.

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