The author of three of my favorite books—the dark Phildickian comedy The Sirens of Titan and two novels of World War II, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five—has died at age 84. At his worst his whimsy could be cloying, and I have to admit I stopped reading his books altogether after the disappointing Galapagos. But at his best, Kurt Vonnegut wrote powerfully about cruelty, absurdity, and meaninglessness. He even managed to make them funny.
Mother Night was his best book. Published in 1961, it tells the story of an American expatriate who does radio propaganda for the Nazis in World War II; he is actually a spy, and his broadcasts incorporate coded messages for the Allies. The novel nestles ironies within ironies, including the possibility that his propaganda did more good for the Axis than his "real" work did for the other side. "We are what we pretend to be," Vonnegut writes, "so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
Vonnegut's political sympathies were always with the left—he cast his first presidential ballot for Norman Thomas—but it wasn't a collectivist left. He did, after all, write the anti-egalitarian fable "Harrison Bergeron," a fixture in public-school reading lists. His chief political interest was his fierce opposition to war, from his youthful support for the America First Committee to his strong disapproval of the ongoing adventure in Iraq. He always was more of a fatalist than an activist, though. As he wrote in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five:
Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, "Is it an anti-war book?"
"Yes," I said. "I guess."
"You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?"
"No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?"
"I say, why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?"
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And now the man is dead. Some of you are planning to enter the phrase "So it goes" in the comments. Resist the temptation.