- There are two types of people in this world those who can count, and those who can't.
And I'd argue there are also two types of fiction writers.
Those who take a backseat and let their work take the spotlight and those who are as iconic as their work, sometimes even more so.
Whether deliberately crafted or not these writers have legacies that are so monumental.
It's an uphill battle to read their work on its own terms.
But maybe there's a third type.
The type of writer whose complex persona is so intertwined with his fiction or hers that to ignore it is to ignore the work entirely.
Folks I'm talking about Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writer of such genre bending satirical novels like "The Sirens of Titan" "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five", a novel which regularly pops up on the Best Novels of All Time list.
Kurt Vonnegut practically (indistinct) as his own public relations rep.
In fact, he was so successful at crafting his persona he spent his later years waffling back and forth between fighting against his reputation and actively leaning into it.
In other words, Kurt Vonnegut was a man of contradictions, a man who wanted it all and got it only to be unsure it's what he actually wanted in the first place.
What resulted from his ongoing struggles with his identity and reputation is a mishmash of outlandish science fiction, wacky characters, biting satire, sobering reflections on our place in the universe and somber tragedy.
And at the center of this glorious mess is Kurt Vonnegut Jr. himself.
A man who would change the face of modern science fiction and give new meaning to the term metafiction.
To quote a phrase that pops up time and time again, in Kurt's writing, "So it goes."
(upbeat music) I'm gonna begin my Kurt Vonnegut spiel by doing something no one has ever done before.
Open with a dictionary quote, a truly revolutionary idea please applaud (applause).
According to University of Minnesota English professor Peter J. Reed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The contribution of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to American literature is two fold.
Through his artistry and persistence, he has helped to elevate the pulp genre of science fiction to the level of critical recognition.
And through his philosophy, he offers a mixture of wistful humanism and cynical existentialism that implies a way of dealing with modern realities completely different from that of most American writers."
This entry about Vonnegut is a helpful jumping off point for two reasons.
One, it encapsulates the fundamental contradictions of Vonnegut's outlook on life.
And two, it emphasizes that his impact on science fiction literature is just as notable as the road that got him there.
Mostly his own persistence.
When Vonnegut was born on November 11th, 1922 he was entering a world that was practically designed to shape a conflicted young man.
You see, November 11th was Armistice Day, which we now know as Veterans Day.
It was a day to commemorate the end of World War I which at the time was called the Great War because we had not yet seen the more horrific sequel World War II Hitler Boogaloo.
Later in life as Vonnegut's identity became inextricably linked with war, he was proud that he was born on a day associated with peace.
But even though the fighting was technically over there was still plenty of hostility against Germans to go around.
And the Vonneguts were very German.
Vonnegut even dubbed himself a pure-bred Kraut.
The youngest of three children Vonnegut enjoyed an upper middle class upbringing in Indianapolis, Indiana.
But even the Vonneguts cushy lifestyle couldn't shield them from the Great Depression but throughout familial ups and downs like his family's bankruptcy and Vonnegut's inability to live up to his older brothers relentless superiority, Bernard was a wiz at science and well Vonnegut was more of an artsy kid.
There is one event that overshadows everything and something that would not only radically affect Vonnegut's life but would kickstart Vonnegut's inclination of facing traumatic life experiences head on in his writing.
That event was his mother's suicide.
And content warning for that because we are about to get into some details.
Skip to here if you want to avoid that detail.
At the age of 21 Vonnegut had returned home one weekend for military training when his sister Alice woke him up early Sunday morning and not just any Sunday morning Mother's Day.
At the age of 55 Vonnegut's mother Edith overdosed on sleeping pills.
She left no note, so it's unclear why Edith took her own life.
But what is certainly clear is the profound effect it had on Vonnegut and his family.
Such as the secretive put on a happy face on it nature of Midwestern life that her suicide wasn't even openly acknowledged as such.
The coroner ruled it an accident.
And even though Vonnegut's father would sometimes admit the truth to relatives he never did so with his children.
Left with the tragic loss of his mother coupled with everyone's refusal to admit the truth about her death Vonnegut didn't run from it, he openly grappled with it.
In social circles he would steer conversations towards suicide and the topic would crop up over and over again in his work.
And in true Kurt Vonnegut style he didn't alter the truth that much, even in his fiction.
In "Breakfast of Champions", a zany whirlwind of a novel Vonnegut describes the suicide of Celia Hoover, the wife of one of the two main characters, Dwayne Hoover in gruesome yet detached detail.
"Having just drunk a bunch of Drano, Celia became a small volcano since she was composed of the same source of substances which commonly clogged drains."
Vonnegut himself, I mean then narrator notes, "Both our mothers committed suicide.
Bunny's mother ate Drano.
My mother ate sleeping pills, which wasn't nearly as horrible."
And in an earlier novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" Vonnegut writes, "Sons of suicides seldom do well.
Characteristically, they find life lacking a certain zing.
They tend to feel more rootless than most even in a notoriously rootless nation.
They are squeamishly incurious about the past and numbly certain about the future to this grizzly extent: they suspect that they too will kill themselves."
I should just say right now Vonnegut doesn't end up killing himself, he dies in 2007 at the ripe old age of 84 and not from the countless Pall Malls he chained smoke throughout the decades which he thought for sure would kill him, no, he died of brain injuries from a fall, which is sad but not the (indistinct) fate he thought about for himself.
But this quote also shed some light on perhaps why so much of Vonnegut's work is focused on the meaninglessness of existence and humanities likely doomed future.
His mother's suicide also permeates his work in other ways.
Says Kurt Vonnegut's biographer, Charles J. Shields, "His mother's suicide permanently erased some of life's luster for him.
In many of Vonnegut's novels and short stories, his obsession with self destruction edges his fiction like a black border' Vonnegut's predilection to grapple with his own past in his fiction by portraying his mother characters as either morbid, crazy or suicidal."
Just seven months after the death of his mother, the second of Vonnegut's two major life altering events was set in motion, war.
In December, 1944, the Germans launched their final offensive with the Battle of the Bulge.
And after his division was swept into the chaos Vonnegut was one of 7,000 troops who was taken prisoner and marched hundreds of miles into Germany.
Leaving his family uncertain of his fate.
For six months, Vonnegut was listed as missing in action.
And during this time he along with 150 other POWs were taken to Dresden.
And it was the ultimate wrong place at the wrong time situation.
On February 13th and 14th of 1945 the British and US Air Forces fire bombed the ever living hell out of Dresden.
Resulting in so much carnage that to this day the death tolls are unknown.
Potentially figuring somewhere between 35,130 and 135,000 people.
For the next several months Vonnegut and the other POWs were forced into traumatizing back breaking work, gathering corpses for massive funeral pyres and clearing rubble all while becoming increasingly sick and malnourished.
Then late that spring Vonnegut and the remaining POWs were marched through the Czech border and abandoned, but at last they were free.
So how in the heck does a man who endured such tragedies in his life, become a writer known for his wit, humor and bizarre off (indistinct) views on life and man's place in it.
This is after all a writer who's written stories with to titles like "Guns Before Butter", "FUBAR", "Bagombo Snuff Box", "Welcome to the Monkey House" and "The Big Space Fuck" (beep).
Wait, this is PBS.
I'm not allowed to say Big Space (beep), am I?
But here's the thing as out there as Vonnegut's stories can be and boy oh boy, can they be out there, they are always firmly rude in a strong moral point of view.
Fellow writer David Eggers says of Vonnegut's stories, "The satisfaction we draw from seeing some moral clarity, some linear order brought to a knotted world is possible to overstate."
The moral compass in much of Vonnegut's work points in a progressive direction.
Leaning very heavily in favor of fairness to down (indistinct) workers, equality for everyone no matter their race, gender, or creed and an overall empathetic view of the poor lowly sick and disadvantaged.
In fact, in lectures and speeches he would sometimes quote the socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, "While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it.
And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
And then there is one of Vonnegut's most off quoted aphorisms "God damn it, you've got to be kind."
Between Vonnegut's reputation of such lofty words to live by and his growing reputation as a writer in the turbulent, sixties and seventies it's no wonder then that he attracted the attention and allegiance of America's youth disaffected by the never ending war in Vietnam, the seemingly relentless assassinations of iconic leaders and a barrage of violence across the country many students turned to Vonnegut's fiction as a way to both escape from their harsh reality and stay tethered to it through the strong moral views in his work.
So perhaps it is no coincidence that Vonnegut's most iconic novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" was released at the turn of the decade in 1969, a year many historians considered the end of the free spirited peace and love sixties and the beginning of a darker period in America.
"Slaughterhouse-Five" marked the culmination of Vonnegut's struggles to grapple with his own war experiences in his work.
Rather than spice up his novels with big exciting battles and macho war heroes he once again leaned into the truth, the confusion of war and the aimless powerlessness that so many soldiers like him felt.
"Slaughterhouse-Five" also continued Vonnegut's trend of directly inserting himself in his fictional work beginning the novel with this sentence, "All this happened more or less."
More or less, wink, wink.
Vonnegut was continuing to fulfill his dream of wanting to be a character in all of his works, but now that he was becoming a household name he wanted to have it both ways.
He noted that to his fans he was valuable to them as a personality while simultaneously finding this disturbing in a way.
As Vonnegut enjoyed the fruits of becoming a famous well-known author fancy dinner parties, hobnobbing with celebrities speaking at universities and lecture halls for tidy fees he was solely realizing that the image of himself that he had relentlessly presented in his work was now interacting with his fans in the flesh and to them his persona and the real person were not lining up.
They mistook persona for a person and in so doing became part of an endless frustrating cycle between the writer and his fans.
In short as Shields puts it, "He had made choices consciously or unconsciously that created multiple and even contradictory identities."
On a more personal note, Vonnegut's nephew Jim Adams puts it thusly, "There a definite disconnect between the kind of guy you would imagine Vonnegut must be from the tone of his books, the kind of guy who would say God damn it you gotta be kind and the reality of his behavior on a daily basis.
He was a complicated difficult man.
I think he admired the idea of love community and family from a distance but couldn't deal with the complicated emotional elements they included."
Vonnegut once did something few writers would ever have the stomach to do.
He graded his own novels.
He gave "Slapstick" the lowest grade a D while "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" both got A pluses.
Wait it go "Cat's Cradle" an "Slaughterhouse-Five" go for you.
The rest were somewhere in the middle but before he graded them, he emphasized that in a world with William Shakespeare, shout out to him, "The grades I hand out to myself do not place me in literary history.
I am comparing myself with myself."
Throughout his life and career Vonnegut's sense of self was ever evolving and always at odds with the blurred line between man and myth.
It was a myth that he both embraced and resisted, a myth that even he himself got lost in like a fun house of mirrors.
In his later years, he told fellow writer, Martin Amis, "I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote those early books.
I wrote that, I wrote that.
The only way I can regain credit for my early work is to die."
Vonnegut did die but the truth lives on in his fiction, "More or less."