Kurt Vonnegut was alone in his generation





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Kurt Vonnegut: A man who defied words


In the first chapter of Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut writes:

“I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.

But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then – not enough of them to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.”

The trouble with big subjects is that it is nearly impossible to put their impact into words, at least without sounding like a fool or a sycophant. These are the subjects for which words fail us.

My father recently had the chance to meet one of the 12 men who has walked on the moon, and he asked him what was strangest about walking on a small, lifeless space orb roughly 238,857 miles from the planet on which he was born.

The astronaut said that he couldn’t get used to the sky. He said that the surface of the moon was as bright as the most beautiful, cloudless day on Earth, but the sky was pitch black.

It’s hard to explain the big things, and to do them justice. I still don’t know what it’s like to walk on the moon, though I’ve heard the stories a million times, and my imagination is completely intact.

My grandfather came home from World War II and refused to tell the stories, just like most of the veterans I hear about. Now, in his old age, his dementia is letting some of the tales slip into unintentional articulation. It is difficult to tell which of his stories are true and which of them are fabricated. It is obvious that he believes them all.

He claims he led a “negro battalion” at one point, and that they were the best unit in the army. This, I am almost certain, is a blatant falsehood. He is trying to absolve himself of his dismally racist history before he reaches any sort of final judgment.

But there is one story I do believe. One night, many years ago, he was almost incoherent with pain and fever – he was getting over testicular cancer. He told me that he once killed a German boy, an extremely young soldier, who had already been subdued and captured. He told me he did it because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone and know he had killed him. He said that all the other times when he had shot, he could never tell if his bullets were doing the job or if he was just taking credit for someone else’s.

I believe this story mainly because it is the only one I have ever heard him tell that was not a deliberate attempt to make himself look good.

But even though I saw my grandfather confess, broken and crying, I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to kill a man. Nor, for that matter, can I begin to comprehend what it must feel like to have led such a horrible life that my senility attempts to correct my wrongs for me. And even though I can tell you how it felt to have my grandfather confess his crimes, there is almost no chance that you will understand me.

It felt like someone had taken a garden rake and stuck it down my throat, caught my stomach, and pulled it up into my chest. And while I was disgusted, a distant, shameful part of me was satisfied. Because the hatred I had felt for this man for most of my life was warranted, after all.

But the point is, even though the things that affect us the most can never really be conveyed, we have to keep trying. Vonnegut wrote his war books. Astronauts give lectures about space. And even my sad, tormented grandfather occasionally voices the truths he’s most afraid to hear out loud.

If a man has lived well, then it will be impossible to explain the impact he has had as well.

Congratulations, Vonnegut. This is my attempt to explain how much your work has touched me. And I cannot even come close.


And so it goes.