Vonnegut scholar Lawrence Broer on the evolution of Kilgore Trout

In a 2017 interview with The Daily Vonnegut, Professor Lawrence Broer discussed his 2011 book Vonnegut & Hemingway – Writers at War.  In the following excerpt, not included in last year’s interview, Broer discusses the evolution of Vonnegut’s most famous character, Kilgore Trout:

Q: How does the role of Vonnegut’s most famous character, Kilgore Trout, evolve from the early work to Trout’s final appearance in Timequake? 

A: Clearly Trout is Vonnegut’s most complex and intriguing fictional persona. His early appearance in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is to me ambiguous, neither wholly positive nor negative. On the one hand Trout’s condemnation of corporate greed and cruelty is vintage Vonnegut. Serving as advisor to Eliot’s father in preparation for Eliot’s sanity hearing, Trout argues the importance of valuing people without wealth or influence, eschewing the nonsensical notion that people are poor for the lack of trying. He praises Eliot’s devotion to volunteer firemen for the exemplary unselfishness that Eliot wants to emulate. On the other hand Trout gets a fifty thousand dollar consultant fee, and I find his speech about Eliot’s concept of “uncritical love” rhetorically pompous in contrast to Eliot’s personal and immediate suffering.

Vonnegut’s more ambitious plans for Trout as his own more bitter and cynical Trout-self become clear in Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions where Trout is described as that “unhappy failure” who represents all the artists who searched for truth and beauty without finding “doodly-squat!” We learn in Breakfast that Trout’s idea of the purpose of human life and, presumably, of his own artistic mission has been to be the eyes and ears and conscience of God, but that years of neglect and a growing sense of a life not worth living have made him temperamentally unfit for the task. He no longer harbors ideas about how things should be on earth, pouring his pessimism into books so demoralizing they drive readers like Dwayne Hoover crazy. Trout’s science fiction novel Now It Can Be Told convinces Dwayne people are nothing more than machines incapable of thinking, feeling, or making choices, so as machines he might as well treat them as inhumanely as he pleases. He subsequently embarks on a rampage that sends eleven people to the hospital.

What I had not sufficiently noticed before you got me re-reading was that the books by Trout that Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy Pilgrim to in Slaughterhouse-Five are all similarly cynical and despairing. Billy doesn’t just become Trout’s biggest fan, novels interwoven throughout Slaughterhouse-Five like Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension and The Gospel from Outer Space, about time travel and visitors from outer space shaped like Tralfamadorians (“by the way”) appear to inspire Billy’s lunatic fantasy of Tralfamadore where he comes to believe there is no such thing as free will and therefore no ability to influence his own life. It’s understanding this, I think, that when Billy’ asks his daughter who she would like to kill, she responds, “That wrier Kilgore Trout.”

While Trout appears cynical and even mean spirited in Slaughterhouse-Five, his appearance in Galapagos is outright sinister. Presaged in Breakfast of Champions, where we’re told Trout’s pessimism “destroyed his three marriages, and drove Leo, his son, away from home,” the life hating Trout of Galapagos encourages his son to kill himself, calling Leo’s curiosity about life foolish. When Leo says he wants more time to complete his research into the human mind and heart and into dehumanizing mechanistic structures, Trout tells him he is nothing better than a machine himself, that the more he learns about people, the more disgusted he will become. Yet in Timequake, Trout undergoes the most startling character transformation in Vonnegut’s work. While the novel opens with a list of the living dead, which once would have included “the cracked Messiah” Trout as Vonnegut calls him in Slaughterhouse-Five, and the author himself, it is the spirit of Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount that comes to the fore, Trout as artist-shaman, offering a prayer for mercy and respect: “For Christ’s sake, let’s help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Vonnegut’s long suffering, most volatile literary figure finds himself the sole person not only to understand the destructive nature of “timequakes”—a psychic phenomenon that causes people to relive past experiences on “auto-pilot,” will-less and destined to make the same mistakes over again—but to oppose it in dramatic fashion by harnessing the power of language to battle timequake will-lessness and despair. He explains to those afflicted with will-lessness, “You were sick, but now you’re well and there’s work to do.” We read that poisoned with “Post Time Quake” apathy, Hemingway and Vonnegut’s mother may have killed themselves, “but not Kilgore Trout.” Vonnegut declares, “His “indestructible self-respect is what I loved most about Kilgore Trout.”

Trout is taken to the writer’s retreat at Xanadu where he is given the Ernest Hemingway suite, in which he lives out his final days as a healer battling the effect of PTA—post timequake inertia. Notably it is on Hemingway’s bed that Trout at first continues writing stories that threaten to infect his readers with his own disillusionment causing them to believe they can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks. It’s Trout’s role as an irresponsible author that explains Vonnegut’s view of Hemingway as a writer like himself who has harmed readers with his own pessimistic belief that human beings are no better than robots in a meaningless world, fostering apathy that in turn fosters aggression. We recall for instance Jake Barnes’ cynicism as the close of The Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry’s feelings of futility at the end of A Farewell to Arms, and Howard Campbell’s despairing realization in Mother Night that his Nazi broadcasts have given “shape and direction” to his listeners, turning them into homicidal monsters. Vonnegut sees how natural it would be for people to behave abominably after reading about people such a Frederic Henry or Dwayne Hoover in books. But with a nod to Rabo Karabekian’s awareness-making art in Bluebeard, Trout’s literary metamorphosis re-directs him to write stories combing traditional humanism with the openness and philosophical pluralism of Pablo Picasso’s paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. He expresses his contempt for “cruel inventions,” “irresistible forces in nature” and fictions with absolute moral codes, closed scripts that privilege masculine authority and contain romantic plots such as Vonnegut decries in A Farewell To Arms. If Vonnegut and Trout are still susceptible to the potentially fatal pull of PTA it is their hopeful voice inspired by their faith in the inviolability of human awareness the prevails in Timequake. 

Evoking the image of Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five as a “cracked Messiah, “and Trout’s existence as a fragment of Vonnegut’s own dived psyche, Vonnegut makes good on his promise in Breakfast of Champions to make Trout whole. “I have broken your mind to pieces,” he tells Trout. “I want to make it whole. I want you to feel a wholeness and inner harmony such as I have never allowed you to feel before.”

For more, read the entire 2017 interview with Broer:

Vonnegut and Hemingway – An Interview with Lawrence Broer

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