God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Writers Under the Influence: George Saunders on Slaughterhouse Five
By George Saunders

Award-winning author George Saunders has produced two amazing story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, as well as a children's book, the surreal fable, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. For Writers Under the Influence, Saunders talks about Reading literary lion Kurt Vonnegut with a capital R. Read on as George Saunders writes on Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

At twenty-three, recent engineering grad that I was, I had read virtually nothing. But there was hope: I was living four out of every six weeks in the Sumatran jungle. On leave in Singapore, I loaded up on books to take back to the seismic crew. This was serious business. If the books ran out before the four weeks did, I would be reduced to reading the same 1979 Playboy over and over, and/or watching hours of wayang theater on the bunkhouse television. Occasionally one of our island contractors would bring porn, which often involved animals. We were obliged to watch, and be grateful, then discuss the details of certain scenes with him. This contractor had once locked a fever-struck employee in a shed, where he died. This contractor was also supposedly magically protected from all attacks on his person. He had so far survived three shootings and a hatchet attack, which was why he was, wittily, called Hatchet.

My understanding of literature at this time was: Great Writing was Hard Reading. If written properly, you could barely understand it. Often, a scene I was imagining indoors suddenly sprouted stars and a riverfront. At a fictional dinner party where I had understood there to be three people present, six were suddenly required, based on the sudden appearance of three unfamiliar names. In terms of language, Great Writing was done in a language that had nothing to do with the one you spoke. The words were similar, but arranged more cleverly, less directly. A good literary sentence was like a floor with a hole hidden in it. You got to the end and thought: "Why'd he say it that way? He must really be a great writer." Plain American language was a degraded thing, good only for getting around your dopey miniature world, cashing checks and finding restaurants and talking about television and so on.

Then, on one of my Singapore jaunts, I picked up Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I knew, vaguely, that this was a Classic. I knew it had to do with World War II, that the author had been present at the firebombing of Dresden. This sounded promising. At this time I also believed, courtesy of my hero Ernest Hemingway, that Good Writing required a Terrible Event One Had Witnessed. With luck, one had been Wounded during the Terrible Event, although not too badly. If not a physically Wound, a mental Wound was fine. The Terrible Event was, in fact, what I was in Asia seeking. I had been to the Cambodian border seeking it, been to the Khyber pass seeking it, but everywhere I went, I was too cautious to be blown up or see anything horrific. Given the chance to really go somewhere dangerous, I would think: Jeez, that sounds dangerous, and retreat to my reasonably priced hotel, and read Hemingway.

But here was Vonnegut, a guy who had been through a Terrible Event. I was very excited to see what he had done with it. I hoped he had not wasted it. I hoped had done something like Hem had done with it. I hoped he had come out of it sobered and sullen, broken by his Terrible Event, but also that he had taken lots of notes, so his book would be filled with pages of lush descriptions that showed that, though Wounded, he still appreciated a good adobe archway or wind-ruffled stand of oak trees, through which the river flowed pleasantly.

"Reading Vonnegut, a sudden understanding of what 'genius' might actually mean, in our time, swept over me. Here was an author courageous enough to concede all expected literary treasures ... for small potent drops of real truth. Here was an author who had been, perhaps, so deeply saddened by what he had seen, that he had dropped, in his sadness, all falseness." --George Saunders

But this guy, I soon found, was funny. Funny? Hem wasn't funny. Only people I knew, like my beloved father and beloved uncles, were funny. How Wounded could he be, if he was so funny? Also, he used the vernacular. I was offended. This guy who had been in the belly of the beast, wrote as if he was still, like me, a regular person from the Midwest. He wrote, in other words, as if there was a continuum of consciousness between himself Before and himself After his Terrible Event. I preferred someone to be forever changed. Furthermore, he did not seem to be saying, as I understood Hem to be saying, that this Terrible Event had forever exempted him from the usual human obligations: being kind, attempting to understand, behaving decently. On the contrary, Vonnegut was using his Terrible Event to explore ways of continuing to remain kind in spite of Terrible Events. Also, he was almost totally skipping the lush physical detals he had presumably put himself into so much danger to obtain. He was assuming these physical details; that is, he was assuming that I was supplying them. A forest was a forest, he seemed to be saying, let's not get all flaky about it. You've seen forests, I've seen forests, can we get on to bigger things--the human heart as it actually is, the tragic way time passes, the way actual cowardice and inadequacy looks and feels? And then, horror of horrors, in the midst of the march towards Dresden, here came a damn spaceship! That did not belong in Literature. That belonged in movies. Movies, I liked, I liked spaceships in movies, but I did not want them in my Literature. What I wanted in my Literature, was some slowly described forests, free from spaceships, and some noble earnest words, with a somber bullfight breaking out now and then. This was all very confusing.

Then, slowly, I began to get it. What kept me trying to get it, was the deep, undeniable, visceral, pleasure I was getting from the reading. I literally could not stay away from the book. I was sneaking it into the office with me, our office out there in the jungle, where I hid it among my seismic records, sneaking it out now and then, alarming, with my sporadic nosesnorts, my hungover colleagues, who perhaps mistook this for homesick sobbing.

This was what one did now, I saw, with Tragedy. One went through it quickly, one eyebrow lifted cynically, as if Tragedy was not one's master. In the same way that Hemingway had done, but moreso (more brio, more fun, more confidence) you gave the full measure of Tragedy (and fear, and horror, and death) by understating it. You telegraphed things that a lazier, more timid writer would have dwelled on for twenty pages, because that writer was scared he didn't have anything else, but you, if you were Vonnegut, you rushed through the things you knew, to get into that vicinity where you didn't know anymore, because you were not afraid, and were curious.

You could, in other words, use modern means to convey modern experience. The tools of art, Vonnegut seemed to be saying, do not need to be--in fact cannot be--any but the ones ready at hand. That everyday language of yours? Use it. That messy pop-culture bag of referents? We collectively made that for a reason--reach into it.

The experiences you have had, he seemed to be saying, are the experiences you have had. They are fine, they are perfect, they are plenty. What else would you possibly use to make art? Skim over the things you know, joke about them, avoid directly exploiting them, shroud them in an over-story about aliens: You know what you know, and that knowledge will not be shaken out of your literature no matter how breezy, or comic, or minimalistic your mode of expression is.

"Vonnegut is, in my view, the great, urgent, passionate American writer of our century..." --George Saunders

I suddenly saw that, for example, my knowledge of Hatchet--his casual cruelty, his unquestioning belief in his own right to run roughshod over others--could be used in fiction, without me needing to get bogged down in the burden of representing Hatchet in slavishly realistic terms. I could riff on Hatchet, instill his mindset in a totally invented character--I could, in other words, use that portion of my mind labeled "Hatchet knowledge" in any way I saw fit.

Reading Vonnegut, a sudden understanding of what "genius" might actually mean, in our time, swept over me. Here was an author courageous enough to concede all expected literary treasures (slow description, lush language, realistic rendering, the miserly cashing-in of one's "wisdom") for small potent drops of real truth. Here was an author who had been, perhaps, so deeply saddened by what he had seen, that he had dropped, in his sadness, all falseness. When I finished the book, and stepped away from it, I was taken aback by the courage and vision required of its author. He must be, I felt, supremely confident of what he knows, to write it with such insolence and flair and bravado. He was like someone who had survived a ten-thousand mile trek on foot, and when asked to give a lecture on it, approached the podum wearily and simply said: Hard.

Last summer I did a relaxed bourgeioise version of my Sumatran seismic-camp reading game: My family and I went to the beach for two weeks, and I brought along a few books. I chose widely--unread early-century classics, recent award winners, obscure artsy titles. And just for insurance, I took along another Vonnegut novel, Slapstick. I am happy to report that when the other books had fallen by the wayside (left in the back of the car with the sand toys, or tossed aside when my Reading Time coincided with my Slightly Buzzed time and therefore not even small falsenesses could be tolerated), the Vonnegut prevailed. It spoke to me every time I opened it. It never felt dated, or bloated, or irrelevant to the moment at hand. It was insanely compressed, urgent, almost frantic--a lesser writer would have made four books out of this one--but always, it spoke to me, like a good and wise friend, and when I went back to life, life always felt bigger than it had felt before I opened the book.

Vonnegut is, in my view, the great, urgent, passionate American writer of our century, who offers us, in the intensity of his gaze, the kindness of his vision, and the width of the possibilties he considers, a model of the kind of compassionate thinking that might yet save us from ourselves.

God bless you Mr Vonnegut. I thank you, on behalf of everyone.

George Saunders is the author of two collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. He teaches in the Syracuse University Creative Writing program.