Kurt Vonnegut reviewed by Harlan Ellison, 1969
In this Sunday's paper, we've got a never-before-published story by Kurt Vonnegut. "Look at the Birdie" is the title story of the collection to be released next week, two and a half years after his death.
"I'm lucky," Vonnegut told David L. Ulin in 1997, "that I'm free to do art, and presumably to keep my soul growing, by finding something else to do. Participation in the arts -- drawing, dancing, and all that -- makes the soul grow. That's why you engage in it. That's how you grow a soul."
When Vonnegut's masterpiece "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published in 1969, it was reviewed for the L.A. Times by Harlan Ellison. Here's his review:
For those who have never slipped down any of the special rabbit holes Kurt Vonnegut has been boring into the decaying flesh of the American Novel, dropping hints about the plot of his new novel only serves to confuse. This is Vonnegut's attempt to describe his feelings about the Allied fire bombing of Dresden, a singular act of senseless brutality in which 135,000 men, women and children were incinerated. (An act of war now generally considered to have been of no strategic value. Dresden, at the time, was an "open" city. One wonders who, inevitably, will be asked to support the guilt for such a deranged deed.)
Though Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war of the Germans, and was saved from cremation during the raid by a quirk of chance that put him in a deep cellar beneath the Dresden stockyards while the fire bombs fell, and though he has spent 20 years working himself up to the re-creation of the event, he is once again eminently Vonnegutesque in that Dresden barely gets mentioned. It is a novel about war and what men do to each other in the name of holy causes.
Which is not to say it is anywhere near "The Naked and the Dead" or "From Here to Eternity." Vonnegut fights his wars with feathers rather than with jackhammers. "Slaughterhouse-Five" is funny, satirical, compelling, outrageous, fanciful, mordant, fecund and at the bottom-line, simply stoned-out-of-its-mind.
It is about Billy Pilgrim who travels to the planet Tralfamadore in a flying saucer, but no tilted-nose critic would cop to Vonnegut's being a science-fiction writer: "It's too good to be science-fiction," they would say. But Vonnegut doesn't care, and you won't care, either, because this is a writer who leaps over genres.
Thus it becomes impossible to say "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a war novel, or a science-fiction novel, or an allegory, or even a trenchant comment on the human condition. However, this we can ascertain about Vonnegut's Dresden book: it succeeds in finally breaking down the interface between author and protagonist. Vonnegut the author and Vonnegut as Billy Pilgrim's chronicler become one and the same, and for those who need to know why a writer spends as many years as Vonnegut did planning a book on a certain subject, only to skip around the outside of that subject, we have the following paragraphs from Vonnegut to his publisher, explaining just as much as he -- and we -- need to know on the question:
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do they birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?"
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.
I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
There is a song in this book sung by a Vonnegut who says people should be nicer to each other. It is no more complex or contrapuntal than that. His song is for not only the superpatriots and those who know God is on their side, but for the Mickey Mouse radicals who condemn Vietnam yet gloat over the Israelis in the Sinai. He says life goes on, and what we have we must enjoy. He says make nice.
There is only one Vonnegut. He writes the most sensationally Vonnegutesque fiction you'll ever read. And in the next few months you'll hear or read many critics discussing him. They will try to categorize him or try to pick apart the musculature of this incredible foma (Vonnegut's word for a harmless untruth that will make you free). They will fail, for like clouds and sweet scents of spring and the special things that make a woman lovely, this book is a totality, no mere plaything for pedants. So pass on their evaluations. Let them trifle, but don't you be fooled.
-- Harlan Ellison
Photo: Kurt Vonnegut in 1990 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times