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Controversy has long been inherent in society, especially in the form of ideas and concepts. Radical ideas and concepts are often not accepted very well initially, if ever. Christianity, atheism, evolution, and the heliocentric model of the universe, among a plethora of other ideas, all met adverse reactions when first introduced. As time progressed, society started accepting these ideas, but not everybody accepts these ideas as truth. Countless ideas and concepts have met tough receptions; many have become accepted as truth and fact, while just as many others have inevitably been disregarded and lost in history books. Although controversial ideas often come in the form of science, they also come in the form of literature. Many novelists, if not all, who have been progressive and introduced new fictional devices or styles have met extremely mixed reviews: some critics praise the novelist highly for his/her work while others highly criticize and dislike his/her work. Kurt Vonnegut is a great example of an author who was progressive and met mixed reviews; almost every one of his novels met reviews on both extremes of the spectrum. While critics may not agree on his novels, most can agree on one thing: largely due to his interesting experiences and writing style, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most well-known contemporary authors.
Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11, 1922. Vonnegut was the youngest of three children born to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Edith Lieber Vonnegut. His parents were both third-generation German-Americans. Up until World War I, Vonnegut's parents were both highly involved in German culture; then the war broke out. Most Americans shunned German culture and his parents abandoned much of their German ties; consequently, when Vonnegut was born, his parents did not teach him the German language or culture. Vonnegut attended private school for a few years until his parents took him out of it in 1930 due to financial problems. This was not necessarily a bad thing. He attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis and ended up writing for the daily newspaper, the Shortridge Echo. In doing this, Vonnegut found his natural talent for writing. He graduated from Shortridge High School in 1940 and went to Cornell University to major - much against his will - in biochemistry. While at Cornell, he became the managing editor for the Cornell Daily Sun and wrote three columns for the paper; consequently, his performance in school was lackluster because he devoted most of his time to the newspaper. Due to his poor grades, Vonnegut decided to enlist in the army in 1942. After a few years in the military, he became a prisoner of war in Dresden, the place of the infamous Dresden firebombing. Miraculously, Vonnegut survived the firebombing and later wrote Slaughterhouse-Five about the war and the firebombing. Not too long after the firebombing, he married his first wife Jane Marie Cox on September 1, 1945. He had three children with Cox and later adopted three children from his sister, Alice. Although Vonnegut seemingly led a happy personal life, his life was far from happiness and perfection. Thompson Gale, the man behind all of the Gale reference books, agrees that throughout his life, Vonnegut had a close friend in death and adversity, yet in spite of all the adversity he suffered through, he ultimately lived a full life and became a successful author (Contemporary Authors Online). The most obvious suffering that Vonnegut endured was the Dresden firebombing. Many people died as a result of the firebombing, and Vonnegut sat witness to all of the carnage. Partly because of suffering through Dresden, Vonnegut dealt with depression for a large part of his life. His depression eventually became so serious that he attempted to commit suicide in 1984. As if depression was not enough to deal with, Vonnegut had to deal with the death of his family members. While on leave from the army, his mother overdosed on sleeping pills and committed suicide on Mother's Day in 1944. He later dealt with the death of his father in 1957. In addition to the deaths of his parents, his sister Alice died from cancer (he adopted her three children shortly thereafter). Regardless of all the things that he suffered through, he still became a successful author. His writing career consisted mainly of novels, short stories, and plays; Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Between Time and Timbuktu are just a few of his many works. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1957; his career only improved henceforth. Throughout his career, he developed a unique satirical writing style and progressively used new and uncommon metaficitonal devices. Due to his writing style and use of technology in his novels, many critics classified him early on as a science fiction writer. His unique writing style garnered many accolades. Thomas F. Marvin, a literary critic, agrees that with multiple awards and a career spanning 50 years, Kurt Vonnegut is easily one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century. Although some critics dislike his novels, he still proves to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century (1).
One of Vonnegut's more well-known books is Cat's Cradle. Cat's Cradle takes place in Ilium, New York and then later on the island of San Lorenzo. The protagonist and narrator of the novel is John, or Jonah. Throughout the novel, he encounters the Hoenikker family, Julian Castle, Bokonon, Papa and Mona Monzano, and Edward McCabe. John sets out at the beginning of the novel doing research for his book about the atomic bomb. He consequently meets the Hoenikker family because Dr. Felix Hoenikker is one of the main scientists behind the creation of the atomic bomb. While researching the Hoenikker family, he finds out that Felix Hoenikker also created ice-nine, a variation of ice that is solid at room temperature. As one would expect, the potential effects of such a substance are devastating. While researching the atomic bomb, John is sent to San Lorenzo to write an article on Julian Castle. While in San Lorenzo, John meets Bokonon, the creator behind a religion based on lies. Papa Monzano is the president of San Lorenzo; he later dies from swallowing ice-nine and John takes over his position as president. The spread of ice-nine on the island eventually turns into an epidemic; nearly everything turns into ice, including all of the world's oceans. John and a few others survive this catastrophe and he writes a novel, Cat's Cradle, about what happens on the island of San Lorenzo. Vonnegut receives somewhat mixed, but mostly positive, reviews about Cat's Cradle. Susan Farrell says this about the novel: "Cat's Cradle, as Vonnegut's 'history of human stupidity,' becomes the symbol he wants to plant - though it might not save us from death and destruction in end, at least the black humor will cause us to go out 'grinning horribly'" ("Cat's Cradle"). One thing that Cat's Cradle succeeds in is being a novel full of satire and black humor. Harold Bloom says that "As an ironist, Vonnegut is too kindly to sustain comparison with Jonathan Swift, whose A Tale of a Tub is one of the ironic masterpieces of the ages" ("Bloom on Cat's Cradle"). While the novel may be a good satire overall, Bloom thinks that it is not quite up to par with the best satire of current times. He also states that "Cat's Cradle may seem too funny to be an atonement, but that is the achievement of Vonnegut's art. A Jonah who can move us to laughter is a valuable resource, perhaps our final ironist" ("Bloom on Cat's Cradle"). While he may not think that Cat's Cradle is the best satire out there, Bloom does admit that the novel has value in the world of satire. Bloom also makes a statement on Bokononism: "Vonnegut, in my view, does not intend Bokononism as another pragmatic nihilism. Its secret is in the karass, with the implication that almost anyone can belong to one's soul-family" ("Bloom on Cat's Cradle"). A karass is a group of randomly selected people who work together to perform God's will. In the novel, the karass is one of the most important aspects of Bokononism. William Brett also comments on Bokononism in the novel: "In Cat's Cradle, the intellectual nihilism of Bokononism, an invented religion 'based on lies', never seems as depressing as it should, mainly because the book is so funny. It's hard to imagine what Vonnegut would sound like without a sense of humour" ("The Joys of Farting Around"). In spite of how unfunny the idea of a religion created upon lies is, the novel still prevails as being incredibly funny to almost all who read it. As demonstrated by the critics' receptions above, Cat's Cradle is a well-written novel although it is not the best in its class.
Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel about the Dresden firebombing, is arguably Vonnegut's most well-received and successful novel. The novel is set mainly in three places in which it skips back and forth between: Ilium, Dresden, and the planet of Tralfamadore. Billy Pilgrim serves as the protagonist who encounters many people throughout the novel, including Kilgore Trout, Montana Wildhack, Paul Lazzaro, the Tralfamadorians, and Eliot Rosewater. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim through a non-linear progression of events switching between his life in Ilium as an optometrist, his experiences in Dresden as a prisoner of war, and his encounters with the Tralfamadorians. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist in Ilium, New York. He becomes a POW in Dresden and survives the firebombing. His friend, Eliot Rosewater, introduces him to Kilgore Trout's science fiction novels that help him get through the war. He also is abducted by the Tralfamadorians and taken to their planet where he is put in a zoo with Montana Wildhack for all of the Tralfamadorians to examine. Billy Pilgrim time travels to different events in Ilium, Dresden, and Tralfamadore. Society eventually ostracizes him for his Tralfamadorian views on life and Paul Lazzaro murders him. The reception of Slaughterhouse-Five is very positive and critics often praise it as his best novel. Harold Bloom states that "The planet Tralfamadore is certainly preferable to a world of Nazi death camps and Dresden firebombings. The small miracle of Slaughterhouse-Five is that it could be composed at all. Vonnegut always writes from the survivor's stance, where all laughter has to be a step away from madness or fury. So indeed it goes" ("Bloom on Slaughterhouse-Five"). It was not easy for Vonnegut to compose the novel because of his experiences in Dresden; it took him a number of years to compose it. Bloom also claims that "It is difficult to comment upon Slaughterhouse-five without being contaminated by its styles and proceduresâ€¦ In 'structure' (an absurd term to apply to almost any novel by Vonnegut), Slaughterhouse-Five is a whirling medley, and yet it all coheres" ("Bloom on Slaughterhouse-Five"). The non-linear structure of the novel certainly is unconventional, but Vonnegut somehow makes it all work. Wayne D. McGinnis comments upon the novel: "In using the idea of regeneration to integrate both theme and form, Vonnegut has written in Slaughterhouse-Five, his best and even most helpful to date" ("The Arbitrary Cycle of 'Slaughterhouse-Five'"). Many critics and readers will agree the theme and structure of Slaughterhouse-Five make it his best novel. Peter Freese applauds Vonnegut on his ability to storify an atrocity:
His narrative reduction of a massive historical event to the multiple-refracted interplay between a traumatized narrator who needs to keep his experience at bay, and a helpless protagonist who hardly understands what is happening to him, turns out to be a highly successful way of translating a historical atrocity, which transcends all human imagination, into the realm of individual empathy and of us thus confronting the puzzled reader with the task of co-authoring the shocking meaning of a tale which is an accomplished example of how a historical event can be imaginatively storified by means of advanced metaficitonal strategies. ("How to Storify an Atrocity")
Being able to take a tragedy of war and turn it into a funny, satirical novel certainly is a feat that most authors cannot accomplish in quite the way that Vonnegut does. Most readers will agree, just like the critics, that Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut's most popular and best novel.
While Slaughterhouse-Five garners positive reviews, Breakfast of Champions meets very contrasting opinions. Breakfast of Champions takes place in Midland City. It follows the story of both Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. Other major characters include, Francine Pefko, Wayne Hoobler, Eliot Rosewater, and Harry LeSabre. The book follows the story of Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction writer on his way to Midland City for an arts festival, and Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman whose mental health is slowly decreasing. Dwayne's mental condition worsens throughout the novel until he finally meets Kilgore Trout - he loves Trout's novels - and injures numerous people. Breakfast of Champions receives extremely mixed critical reception: some critics praise the novel while others criticize it heavily. Peter B. Messent claims that "with Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut has taken a fictional cul-de-sac. His stylistic approach basically fails and comes close at times to mere childishness" (113-14). Towards the end of the novel, the narrator acts as a functioning character and as Vonnegut himself, which Messent does not like. Messent further comments on the style of the novel:
Vonnegut gives the reader a superabundance of detail, a superabundance which theoretically is never-ending, while at the same time he is unable to depart from what has to be the main centre of interest in the novel, the development of the two major protagonists, Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. Without these two characters the novel would be formless - mere random anecdotes: their story gives the novel its centre and its structure. To follow Vonnegut's stylistic precepts as presented in Breakfast of Champions to their logical conclusion would result in a novel with no major characters, and that is not what he gives us here. (113)
Vonnegut's progressive style and structure of Breakfast of Champions is quite different from most modern fiction at the time, and some critics certainly did not appreciate it. Donald E. Morse, though, claims that "a closer analysis of the text of Breakfast of Champions reveals that this naÃ¯ve style, this so-called 'childishness,' actually helps defamiliarize what we have come to accept as ordinary everyday truth" ("The 'Black Frost' Reception"). Vonnegut's style puts the reader in a different type of novel, one that makes the reader question not only the writing style but also everything else in the novel. Josh Simpson states that "Breakfast of Champions is one of Vonnegut's most important books, for in it, the third and final installment of what I term the Troutean trilogy, Vonnegut forces Kilgore Trout to examine his work's influence on humanity" ("'This Promising of Great Secrets'"). Kilgore Trout appears in many of Vonnegut's novels, but this novel is the novel in which he plays the largest role and most important role. Simpson elaborates on Trout's role:
With Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut ends his Troutean trilogyâ€¦Vonnegut uses Trout as a comical character who, through his interactions with Eliot Rosewater, Billy Pilgrim, and Dwayne Hoover, learns a profound lesson: literature matters, and the writer-artist has an obligation to the world. In an age when random acts of violence and horror are blamed on literature, music, film, and the arts in general, Trout is an important literary figure with much to offer the masses. ("'This Promising of Great Secrets'")
Simpson thinks that Kilgore Trout plays an especially important role in Breakfast of Champions and exemplifies a lesson that all artists should learn. In spite of the mixed reviews, many readers still enjoy Breakfast of Champions and find it to be one of his better novels.
The life and work of Vonnegut can be difficult to summarize, but one could possibly summarize it in one word: interesting. While many authors have interesting events occur during their lifetime, Vonnegut is at the top of the list. While reading his novels, it becomes rather apparent that his novels are highly influenced by nearly everything that has happened in his life. From being in the war, to working at General Electric, everything that has influenced his views and made him nihilistic present themselves in his novels. His creation of satirical, nihilistic novels in addition to his progressive writing style nearly set him up for failure: nearly anything progressive in nature will meet mixed opinions. Although Vonnegut meets mixed receptions on nearly all of his novels, he still prevails as one of the most widely read and interesting contemporary authors.