Simply Vonnegut

Author brandishes his singular form of commentary

For a man who often sounds world-weary bordering on cynical, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s delivery is nothing short of hilarious. Many of the students attending his sold-out November 5 talk at Cohen Auditorium entered the hall expecting a passionate anti-war rant from the famously pacifist author of Slaughterhouse Five, the novel based on his experiences as an infantryman and POW in World War II, or at the very least, a ponderous discourse on the writing life (his speech was titled "How to Get a Job Like Mine").

Kurt Vonnegut © Jacob Silberberg

But even those accustomed to the dark humor of Vonnegut's novels—Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions and Happy Birthday, Wanda June among them—seemed to walk away remembering most strongly the connection he made with his audience and the almost-nonstop laughs he elicited tossing off unexpected punch lines with a showman's impeccable timing.

"If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don't have nerve enough to be a homosexual," went a typical line, "the least you could do is go into the arts."

"I expected him to be a lot more serious," Mary Swinehart, a senior, said of the octogenarian author after the lecture. "Even though he's an older guy, he was not condescending at all. He talks like you're sitting next to him on the bus."

Political psychopaths
Vonnegut's rumpled "everyman" appearance no doubt contributes to that perception. But the qualities that have made him a cult figure to generations of college students were vividly displayed at Tufts as he interacted directly with the audience, covered a few bawdy topics, freely questioned authority and skewered cultural figures both real and imagined, likening Shakespeare's Polonius, for example, to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh—"a fat windbag." Between laughs, the more serious side of Vonnegut's rambling reflections also appealed to the students. He riffed against the war in Iraq, condemned the conduct behind global warming and suggested that certain American political and business leaders fit the clinical definition of psychopaths: "They are beautifully dressed; they are beautifully groomed; they are smart; they are capable, and they do not care how much their actions may hurt other people."

Later in the evening he asserted that "our form of government now is television. It gives the whole country one calamity to talk about." He mentioned that a recent anti-war rally he spoke at on St. Mark's Place in New York City was not covered by the press. "There were no reporters or news cameras because peace is not entertaining," he said. "Revenge is entertaining." After alluding to George Bush's remark that Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad," Vonnegut noted that the biblical injunction of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—borrowed from the 18th-century, B.C., Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi—meant not that we should avenge every injury done to us, but rather that one should take "only an eye for an eye," and no more. If Hammurabi hadn't spelled this out," he said, "pretty soon everybody in Babylonia would be looking for 'closure.' "

But politics wasn't the only thing on the author's agenda.

Despite his assertion that "every speech I've ever given has been called 'How to Get a Job Like Mine,' no matter what I've really talked about," he did not disappoint would-be writers in the audience who were "hoping for advice from an old geezer."

After cautioning against the use of semicolons, which he called "transvestite hermaphrodites" because they "stand for absolutely nothing," Vonnegut continued with some serious guidance couched, as always, in humor. "If you have a story that isn't working, throw away the first three pages," he said. "Because all you've done is introduce yourself, and the reader doesn't give a damn who you are. The reader wants action. Now, if your story isn't working still, you're a character short. And the missing character is Iago. He was a perfect sonofabitch, and he will make your otherwise-listless characters bounce around some."

Storytelling advice
Falling easily into the role of everyone's favorite professor—he has taught creative writing at Harvard and the University of Iowa Writers Workshop—Vonnegut took up a marker and started charting his "scientific" theory of storytelling on a board beside the podium, plotting out a y-axis to represent the good-fortune, ill-fortune scale, and an x-axis that ran from "beginning to entropy." He mapped out the "beautiful curves" of the man-in-hole story, where someone gets into trouble and gets out of it again, and the boy-meets-girl story before launching into the downward spiral of the Franz Kafka story, which is about a "not particularly attractive man with an uninteresting family, and he has a lousy job that doesn't pay enough for him to take a girl out or have a beer with a friend or anything, and he wakes up one morning"—dramatic pause—"and he has turned into a cockroach."

After diagramming tales from Cinderella to Hamlet, the self-proclaimed Luddite segued from writing compelling narratives to creativity in general via the deadening impact of technology. "Bill Gates is saying, 'Wait'll you see what your computer can become,' " he said. "Well, goddamn it, we should see what we can become!" As he has done in speeches at countless universities throughout the country, he gave a homework assignment: To write a rhymed six-line poem. "Make it as good as you can make it," he said, "and don't tell anybody what you did. When it's done, tear it up in small pieces and throw the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles. You will have been tremendously rewarded simply by the act of creation"—an act with which he continues to struggle, previous announcements of retirement notwithstanding.

He read a bit from a work in progress, a novel about a standup comedian named Gil Berman, that he claimed he is "utterly unable to finish" because it's "so pessimistic that it breaks my heart." Berman, who appears poised to seize the mantle of Vonnegut's doppelganger from Breakfast of Champions character Kilgore Trout, believes "the whole country is hooked on petroleum, and the pushers have taken over the White House in a coup d'état." Berman is so crazy, the author added, "he thinks we are killing the planet...and our descendents will inherit an enormous junkyard."

Wisdom from Uncle Alex
Luckily, speaking to a roomful of students seems to exhilarate Vonnegut, an avowed humanist, and bring out his hopeful side. In closing, he talked about his Uncle Alex, who seems to appear in nearly every speech the author gives. One thing Uncle Alex "found objectionable about human beings," Vonnegut said, "is that they seldom took time out to notice they were happy." At those moments that many of us take for granted—such as drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in summertime—Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation with the phrase, 'If this isn't nice, what is?,' reminding the young Vonnegut to enjoy life's simple pleasures.

After telling the Tufts audience to remember this aphorism and start using it, he asked another favor of the crowd. "How many of you had a teacher who made you more excited to be alive than you thought possible?" Nearly every hand in the room went up. "Will you say the name of that teacher," he continued, "to someone sitting next to you?" For a minute or two, the auditorium was abuzz with the sound of 620 whispering voices.

"Now, if this isn't nice, what is?" Vonnegut concluded, exiting to a thundering standing ovation.