Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

This odd and eclectic little book contains a series of brief vignettes Vonnegut did for New York radio some years back.  The basic premise is that Jack Kevorkian takes him almost to the point of death (in a Huntsville, TX, death chamber) so that Vonnegut can go and interview dead people.  Each presentation reveals the upshot of these conversations.

The interviews are often humorous and sarcastic.  They usually wish to make a general point about this or that particular issue in American society.  They all reflect Vonnegut’s own interesting but usually leftist takes on American culture.

The book is intended to be a collection of witty social commentary, not a reflection on theology.  Even so, Vonnegut does explain his personal views on the afterlife:

About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”

The question from Vonnegut’s grandfather is tragic, for, of course, it matters a great deal whether or not Jesus was God.  Regardless, it is a helpful insight into Vonnegut’s mind.  He appears to foster a respect for the historical figure of Jesus while harboring none for the identity of Jesus.  As a Christian, this is a fatal misstep, but it likely describes the position of many Americans who seek to hold to the teachings of Jesus (selectively chosen, of course) while eschewing orthodox Christianity.  (C.S. Lewis, among others, dealt, in my mind, a definitive death blow to this kind of attempted end-around run in Mere Christianity.)

Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s book (as he points out more than once) so even Hitler is in Heaven.  Some of the people don’t really even want to be there.  Regardless, Vonnegut’s encounters are thought-provoking at best and mildly irritating at their worst.

To give you a taste, here is Vonnegut’s interview with Karla Faye Tucker:

It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.

Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. “He’s a murderer, too,” said Karla Faye. “He murdered me.”

Clearly, the intent is to use Tucker as a vehicle for Vonnegut to stress his disapproval of the death penalty.  As a literary device, it really is quite effective, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vonnegut’s views on this or that issue.

So here is my own take on this book:  if you’d like to kill a little time by observing the musings of an interesting, often short-sighted, occasionally insightful and frequently humorous humanist, check it out.  Christians will find some aspects of the book disheartening and sad, and they should.  There is limited value in the work.  It does show the inner mental workings of one of America’s more interesting writers.  For a Christian, though, the book oftentimes lapses into the kind of modernistic and vapid platitudes one may encounter on any street corner on any given day.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the truly compelling (and oftentimes satirical) commentaries on the horrors of World War II.  I have been intending to read Vonnegut’s classic work for a good bit of my life now and regret that it took me this long to do so (actually, my Kindle read it to me on a trip to Memphis and back).

The book follows the story of a young World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut himself (who appears in his own novel), survived the hellish firebombing of Dresden by American and British forces in 1945.  As a prisoner of war assigned by the Germans to a construction detail in the city of Dresden, Vonnegut and other American soldiers survived the firebombing while holed up in an underground German slaughterhouse (#5).

Vonnegut’s approach to explaining and describing the horrors of Dresden through the experiences of Billy Pilgrim is masterful.  The book has rightly taken its place as a modern classic.

Pilgrim, Vonnegut tells us, has become “unstuck in time.”  It’s the late 1960’s and Pilgrim, now a widower in his 40’s, begins to tell people, much to the chagrine of his embarrassed daughter, that he was once kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  So the story is essentially Pilgrim bouncing from one point of time to another, including the war, his childhood and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.

As the tale progresses, Pilgrim reveals a mind that has resigned itself to a kind of fatalism concerning the fallenness of humanity, though he seems to want to hold on to free will as a principle.  He has fascinating conversations with the Tralfamadorians concerning free will, concerning the nature of time, concerning the elusiveness of peace and concerning life itself.  He shows an amazing and often humorous sense of detachment and disinterest in the events of the war, to the great irritation of the other American soldiers and the general amusement of his captors.

Vonnegut uses the character of Billy Pilgrim in profoundly effective ways to offer observations and hints concerning his own resignation to the maddening absurdity of war and the vicious cycles in which humanity finds itself.  Though an agnostic/atheist/humanist (depending on which of Vonnegut’s statements you read), he makes frequent and (apparently) positive references to Jesus, most interestingly when he mentions that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in studying Charles Darwin (who, Vonnegut tells us, saw dead bodies as an inevitable reality of existence) than Jesus Christ.  In another instance, Pilgrim chooses to read a science fiction book about a man who decides to go back in time 2,000 years to the events of the crucifixion to see if Jesus really died.  Pilgrim is depicted as a Christian, though he possibly loses his faith.  It is hard to tell.

Again, the book’s designation as a modern classic is well deserved.  Slaughterhouse Five is a thought-provoking discussion of human nature, life, death (every death scene in the book is tellingly followed by the refrain, “So it goes.”), sin, virtue, war, society and human nature.  It is a helpful, interesting and, in many ways, saddening glimpse into one agnostic’s efforts to make sense of the depravity of man.