In high school, my humanities class was assigned to create a work of art bearing similarity to the work of an artist we admired. I did photography – a cop-out to say the least. However, a classmate wrote a few chapters of a novel with a fictional plot, while also including herself autobiographically in the story as well. The paragraphs were short and direct, but they jumped all over, addressing a plethora of topics. Her work was intended to reflect the style of Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut was and is an American icon. His wildly popular books include classics such as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Timequake. His style is unique, random, and wildly popular among young people even today.
To find out why he is so well-liked, I picked up Breakfast of Champions. I finished in a matter of hours; it was smooth and easy reading (at least, so far as the grammar was concerned). The story begins… well, no, it does not at first. Vonnegut starts by sharing random things about his life, people he knew and appreciated, topics that interest or annoy him. For a fan of classic fiction such as myself, it was downright weird. It would only get worse.
The story does eventually start, but it reads like the most unfocused person you can imagine speaks. Yes, somewhere in there is a plot about one old man traveling to a convention. Meanwhile, another old man likes the first man’s stories, and he is also going crazy. In the end he hurts a bunch of people. The end.
Plot comes through in bits and pieces, each portion launching long digressions into stories, commentary, and personal perspective on the state of things. One moment he gives a condescending discussion of the pornography industry and its regulators, the next he describes an imaginary story of Hawaiian natives forced to hang from helium balloons because the “owners” of their land refuse to let them live there. He draws pictures of underpants and guns and lambs and Holiday Inn signs. In short, it seems an exercise in randomness. Here is an example, found in a scene when one of the main characters is having an affair with his secretary:
“You know what I keep thinking?” said Francine. Dwayne snuffled. “This would be a very good location for a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.”
Dwayne’s relaxed body contracted as though each muscle in it had been stung by a drop of lemon juice.
Here was the problem: Dwayne wanted Francine to love him for his body and soul, not for what his money could buy. He thought Francine was hinting that he should buy her a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which was a scheme for selling fried chicken.
A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this:
(Here Vonnegut drew a felt-tip pen picture of a chicken)
The idea was to kill it and pull out all its feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs- and then chop it into pieces and fry the pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it, so it looked like this:
(Here Vonnegut drew a felt-tip pen picture of bucket of fried chicken)
Impressively, Vonnegut takes this sort of stuff (though generally of a more vulgar variety), weaves it together, making random comments in one place that helpfully explain a joke ten chapters later. This flavor of brilliantly interconnected language, nonsense, and sarcasm pervades his writing. However, that is a mild example. The primary reason for the digressions is criticism; Vonnegut uses his powers of description and satire to pick on authority in general, whether it is government regulators, perpetuators of war, businesses that pollute the earth, leaders who fail to feed the hungry, property owners, or white people.
It is here that Vonnegut is at his most effective: satirical critique. He has a powerful way of oversimplifying problems in ways that make authority figures look like jerks and those not in authority look like victims. It is a humanistic, victimized, classist worldview.
So here is my question: how should Christians respond to his writing? Yes, there is a time to stand up to the abuses of authority. Yes, we should be more conscientious about the impact of our economic and governmental policies. But does that automatically make Vonnegut right in his relentless satire?
I say no. Vonnegut’s morality finds its identity in critique. He desires a world of unity and compassion and equality, but seems unable to acknowledge the possibility that human problems come from humans, not from problems. He is a more bitter version of Mark Twain (which is saying something!), highlighting the ways normal people are depressed and hamstrung by the foolish authorities over them.
Christians can appreciate the fiction, but there is danger of victim-hood and cynicism. Satire carries components of self-righteousness and distrust of authority. One has to question whether this type of criticism carries more danger for the critic than the criticized.
Here is another quote from Breakfast of Champions, when the main character answers the question of the purpose of life (asked, naturally, on the wall of a gas station bathroom):
Of the Creator of the Universe,
Is Vonnegut a prophet and a satirical conscience for Western materialism, or is he a self-righteous socialist, convinced that the rich are eternally oppressing the poor? His work is powerful and funny, but requires careful thought and discernment from the Christian.