'Vonnegut as a Bug in Amber: PAGE 1

Marek Vit's Kurt Vonnegut Corner

Vonnegut as a "Bug in Amber"

Connection of Fiction and Autobiography in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Introduction

      Kurt Vonnegut Junior  is a name that is  well known in
the field  of literature. The attitudes  of both critics and
the  general public  differ regarding  this novelist.  While
some  people  consider  him  a  distinguished writer, others
dismiss his  writing and himself as  a writer completely. In
libraries  and bookstores,  his books  can be  found both on
shelves among genres like fantasy and science fiction and on
shelves  among "serious  literature". One  Czech critic once
wrote  that  "to  look  for  psychological and philosophical
depth in the writing of  Vonnegut is really futile. It would
also  be  pointless  and  unnecessary." (Jarab:235, transl.)
This is  definitely not the only  example of such criticism.
However, the spirit of this  essay does not agree with these
critics.  This work  contradicts  what  has been  written by
Jarab   and  seeks   and  finds   this  supposedly   missing
psychological and philosophical depth.
      Readers  who  have  read  any  of  the  works  of Kurt
Vonnegut must have come across many things that caught their
attention. It is  not only his unusual style  that makes him
special in contemporary American  literature. It is not only
the  skill and  various  literary  techniques with  which he
manages to convey the main message to readers of various age
groups. It is not only the message itself which always makes
people think  and discover startling facts  about our world.
Looking on  Vonnegut's works from a  holistic point of view,
a reader  or a  critic can  see recurring  themes and ideas.
Throughout  this  author's  books,  the  reader  can  notice
a unique relationship between the created image of Humanity,
people  in general,  and Divinity,  a divine  power or  God.
Humanity,  in this  case, seems  to be  in a rather peculiar
situation,  unable to  escape  an  invisible grasp  that has
a hold  on  it.  Vonnegut,  through  his  life,  novels  and
stories, appears to  have been looking for a  way out of the
grasp,  a  way  of  making  a  m  an  free. In some books he
succeeds, in some he does not. What the way out (or the ways
out) is, is the main focus of this essay.
       A   common  reader   may  have   noticed  that   Kurt
Vonnegut's  works seldom  have villain  characters. This has
been  observed  by  many  of  his  readers and many literary
critics as well (e.g. Ranly, Reed). However, it can be noted
that  there  is  always  at  least  one  villain  character,
although it  is definitely not a  human being. Whom Vonnegut
tends to present as a villain is God. Sometimes he calls Him
God  Almighty,  sometimes  The   Creator  of  the  Universe,
sometimes Mother Nature. Sometimes Vonnegut does not mention
God at  all, but always  there is a  force that carries  the
attributes of a villain character. However, in most cases he
refers to 'Christian' God. 'Christian God', though, does not
mean that the image that is  created by Vonnegut is the same
as the Christians' image of  God. This essay will prove that
it  is  very  different.  'Christian  God'  means  only that
Vonnegut  refers  to  the  same  God  as Christians do, even
though Vonnegut  sees Him in an  altogether different light.
This conclusion can be arrived at from various references to
the Bible, the life of  Jesus, or criticising Christians and
their faith.
      Hero characters also do not appear in Vonnegut's books
very frequently. All human beings  in his literary works are
little people  which seem to  be lead by  a Master Puppeteer
from above and therefore cannot be responsible for what they
do  and thus  cannot be  considered to  be villains.  In his
autobiographical collage Palm  Sunday, Vonnegut himself says
that his  books argue that  "most human behavior,  no matter
how  ghastly  or  ludicrous  or  glorious  or  whatever,  is
innocent," (PSU:xviii).  Maybe humanity in  general could be
considered  to be  a hero  character, since  it has  to live
through  the neverending  attacks of  the villain character,
that is - God; a hero character that can never win. However,
Vonnegut  seems to  find a   way for  humans to  conquer the
villain.
       This  work, being  written by  a believing Christian,
will not  focus on religious  meditation about Vonnegut  and
God, neither will it try to ridicule Vonnegut's opinions and
views. It  will by no  means judge if  the way how  Vonnegut
sees God is  right or wrong. The focus  of this essay should
be different.
      Firstly, this work  will study aforementioned Humanity
and  Divinity,  two  literary  characters  which, though not
actually appearing in any of  the books, play the major part
in Vonnegut's  novels and stories.  Numerous quotations from
Vonnegut's literary  works will be  used to create  accurate
character  traits  and  to  illustrate  their  relationship.
Understanding  the relationship  between these  two poles is
essential for creating a  comprehensive the concept of being
stuck  and  finding  a  way  out,  especially for Vonnegut's
concept of "Bugs stuck in amber" (SH5).
      Finally,  this  essay  will  explore  and identify the
theme of being stuck and looking  for or finding the way out
in Vonnegut's books written throughout his life. It will try
to show that  even though each book and  story is different,
the  main theme  is very  similar, and  the way  out may  be
there, for  the characters of  the particular book,  for the
general  character  of  Humanity,  or  perhaps  for Vonnegut
himself.
      Consistent  biography  of  Kurt  Vonnegut  will not be
presented  in  this  thesis.  His  life,  however,  will  be
explored  to   some  extent  in  order   that  arguments  on
autobiography   in   Vonnegut's   novels   may  have  better
grounding.

Creating a consistent picture
      It cannot be very difficult  to write about the themes
of one  particular book by  Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Certainly, an
essay  written on  the themes  of one  book would not reveal
anything the reader might not notice during his own reading.
The reason for this is the fact that Vonnegut does not leave
any  mysteries in  his  books,  but with  endurance explains
himself over and over again. This usually takes the wind out
of the  potential critics' sails. Kakutani,  for example, is
irritated by this  and writes th at what  is most disturbing
about the novel Galapagos is

         the author's  tendency to repeatedly  italicize the
         moral of  his story: as  in most of  Mr. Vonnegut's
         fiction,  deciphering  the  message  is  never  the
         reader's problem,  and Galapagos is  obvious enough
         without  our having  to be  told, point-blank, that
         Mandarax  stands for  "the apple  of knowledge"  or
         that Captain von Kleist  represents the "new Adam."
         (Kakutani:17)

      Even though it might be  pointless to discuss one book
in particular  (it has been  done many times  already), this
essay will  do something different.  It will put  Vonnegut's
books  and  stories  together,  identify  the common themes,
merge  the  ideas  that  are  expressed  in various books by
Vonnegut,  thus  creating  one  consistent  picture  out  of
fragments  scattered  throughout  Vonnegut's  works. Through
this  picture it  will be   enabled to  get deeper  into the
meaning of  Vonnegut's writing and maybe  into the psyche of
Kurt Vonnegut himself.

Interchangeability
      Characters,  main  or  less  important  ones,  tend to
reappear  throughout  Vonnegut's  work.  For  example  Eliot
Rosewater, who  appears "full time"  in the novel  God Bless
You,  Mr.  Rosewater,  shows  up  to  occupy  a few pages of
Slaughterhouse-Five.   Diana  Moon   Glampers  playing   her
important role  in the story "Harrison  Bergeron", where she
destroys  the  world's  only   hope  of  salvation,  becomes
a wretched character in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Dwayne
Hoover  first appears  in  Breakfast  of Champions,  then in
Deadeye Dick.  Kilgore Trout, as the  last example, shows up
in  many novels,  either as   a minor  or a  major character
(e.g.  SH5,  BOC,  JAI,  TQK,  ROS,  GAL).  This habit, this
tendency of  reappearing characters makes  Vonnegut's novels
interchangeable.
      It is  not only characters  which are interchangeable.
There  are  various  recurring  themes  (predestination  and
fatalism), ideas  (handicapping people in order  to be equal
in  "Harrison  Bergeron"  and  Sirens  of  Titan) and places
(e.g. Indianapolis,  Ilium). Sale notices this  when he says
that what  he resists in  Vonnegut's books is  the fact that
they

         seem  formulaic,  made  of  interchangeable  parts,
         though this is one quality  which may endear him to
         others.  Once Vonnegut  finds what  he takes  to be
         a successful  character, motif  or phrase  he can't
         bear to give it up, so he carries it out from novel
         to novel. (Sale:3)

Though  this fact  may make  Vonnegut's books  appear to  be
non-attractive to some people  and interesting to others, it
can  also  help  in  creating   the  image  of  Humanity  as
a character  and later  characterize the  main theme  of the
works  of  Kurt  Vonnegut.  The  interchangeability makes it
possible to  put the works,  the themes, the  characters and
the ideas  together in order  to form one  consistent image.
Reed also sees that

         the  numerous recapitulations  of previous  themes,
         resurrections  of  characters   who  have  appeared
         before,  and  recollections  of  earlier  mentioned
         incidents ... represent  an attempt at integration,
         an effort  to bring together all  that Vonnegut has
         been   saying   about   the   human  condition  and
         contemporary American society. (Reed:172-173)

The reason  for the recurrence described  by Reed above will
be used in this essay: to integrate and to bring together.
      Certainly, there  are major differences  in Vonnegut's
novels,  especially,   they  are  constantly   changing  and
evolving through time. It would  be wrong to assume that all
novels  and stories  can be  used identically  in criticism.
Vonnegut's   fiction  does   seem  to   evolve,  from   more
sci-fi-like  fiction to  more autobiographical  fiction. His
style  evolves, his  themes evolve,  his characters  evolve,
too.

Humanity as a character
       In this  essay, Humanity will be  treated in the same
way as any literary critic would treat a literary character.
It  is true  that there  are individual  human characters in
Vonnegut's  books, but  it will  be necessary  to generalize
a little and  deal with Humanity  as one literary  character
(hence  the  capitalization  of  the  two  words).  Vonnegut
himself indirectly  hints at the fact  that all human beings
behave the same way and can, therefore, be considered as one
entity.  It  is  typical   of  Vonnegut  that  he  describes
something  and   then  suddenly  stops   and  concludes  the
paragraph by a simple "and so  on" or "etc." phrase. Here is
presented just one small example out of many:

         In some places people would actually try to eat mud
         or suck on gravel while babies were being born just
         a few feet away. And so on. (BOC:13)

In Breakfast of Champions  Vonnegut explains himself and his
almost obsessive usage of  and-so-on's and et-cetera's. Here
he draws  a part of a  structure of a plastic  molecule with
numerous "etc."  endings. "The molecule  went on and  on and
on, repeating itself forever to a form of a sheet both tough
and poreless."  He says that  the abbreviation "etc."  means
"sameness without  end" and that "the  proper ending for any
story about people . . . ,  since life is a polymer in which
the  Earth  is  wrapped  so  tightly,  should  be  that same
abbreviation." After  a large drawing of  an "etc." Vonnegut
continues, "And it is in order to acknowledge the continuity
of this  polymer that I  begin so many  sentences with 'And'
and  'So' and  end so  many paragraphs  with '...and  so on"
(BOC:227-228). "It's all like celophane!" Vonnegut cries out
(BOC:228). This  obviously implies, that  Vonnegut considers
all human  beings, without exception ("poreless"),  to be of
the  same nature.  Therefore, Humanity  can be  treated like
this  tough and  poreless piece  of plastic,  like a roll of
celophane -- like one literary character.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS:

	INTRODUCTION			
	CHAPTER I: Humanity			
	    Characteristics of Humanity		
	    Playthings, puppets			
	    Human life and its value		
	    Bugs in Amber			
	CHAPTER II: Divinity
	    Characteristics of Divinity		
	    Other Divinity characters		
	    The Divine Father			
	    Religion				
	CHAPTER III: Hero vs Villain
	    Hero vs. Villain			
	    Unsuccessful Ways Out
	    Successful Ways Out 			
	    Humanity vs. Divinity			
	    On meaning and purpose of life	
	CHAPTER IV: Vonnegut as the Hero
	    Fiction and Autobiography merged	
	    Vonnegutīs amber			
	    Vonnegutīs ways out
	CONCLUSION
	List of Abbreviations Used			
	Bibliography
BACK TO MAIN PAGE				
				

Last modified: Apr 2, 1998
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