Zachary Perdieu – The Many Vonneguts

In 2016, Zachary Perdieu, co-Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, delivered a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference titled “’That was I. That was me.’ The Many Vonneguts and Their Relationship with Fiction.” In the following interview, Perdieu shares his thoughts on “the many Vonneguts” and how Vonnegut’s fiction may have predicted his own death.

Q: Vonnegut is well-known for inserting himself into his fiction, perhaps most prominently in Breakfast of Champions. In your research you found evidence of this approach in a much earlier work, Cat’s Cradle. What did you find?

A: In Jerome Klinkowitz’s book Vonnegut In Fact (1998), Klinkowitz explains that Vonnegut attempted to insert his surname, at the very least, into the narrative of Cat’s Cradle (1963). Funnily enough, Vonnegut had already blatantly placed a “Kurt Vonnegut” character in Mother Night that came out two years before Cat’s Cradle, but this character was presented as the editor of Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s memoir manuscript. This manuscript was fictional, of course, so the “editor” character Vonnegut presented was also a fictional projection of the author, himself. Apparently, this particular presentation of a Vonnegut-character was accepted by editors, but the idea of the author’s last name entering Cat’s Cradle two years later was viewed as literary malpractice, as Klinkowitz goes on to write, “Editors talked Vonnegut out of the idea as being too radical” when Vonnegut made this attempt in Cat’s Cradle because it would be seen as “violating the aesthetic distance that critics assume must exist between reality and the fictive” (111).

So Vonnegut was “present” as an editor-character in Mother Night in 1961, and then showed up again in 1969 in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five and a few other places in the book. As you mentioned, Vonnegut as an author/character shows up most prominently in Breakfast of Champions in 1973, where the character is interacting and manipulating with the fictional universe around him. Simply put, in the book immediately preceding Cat’s Cradle and the two that followed in publication order, representations of Vonnegut as a character are all over the place. Despite this, his editors had censored this stylistic inclination out of Cat’s Cradle.

I was at Indiana University’s Lilly Library doing research in the Vonnegut archive for my master’s thesis, and on my final day I decided to look for evidence of Klinkowitz’s claim that Vonnegut had attempted to place himself in the work in an early draft of Cat’s Cradle that was present in the archive. The protagonist (named John in the published version) stops at a headstone carving shop. There is a massive headstone on display, and the proprietor of the business explains that a German immigrant had commissioned the shop owner’s great-great grandfather to produce the angel, but the immigrant had left for some land he owned in Indiana without paying, so the angel was mostly a display item. There is a name carved on the headstone, and the proprietor says that the name has likely been Americanized to “Jones or Black or Thompson” (72). When the narrator of the published text sees the name, however, he has something akin to a panic attack. Once the narrator recovers, he tells the proprietor that the name had not been Americanized. The published version of the chapter ends with “That name was my last name, too” (73). This narrator already has much in common with Vonnegut the author, of course. Both were writers, with un-Americanized last names descended from German immigrants whom settled in Indiana, but the unpublished early draft had a different chapter ending that took this connection one more step: “The last name was mine. ‘Vonnegut,’ that tombstone said” (Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut mss.). So there it was – direct evidence of what Klinkowitz had stated – Kurt Vonnegut “violating the aesthetic distance that critics assume must exist between reality and the fictive.” This was just the beginning of the changes to the draft, however, as a completely alternate ending is present in the early draft in which a “Mr. Vonnegut” character has a primary role.

Q: You also found some interesting connections between Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions that point toward the construction of a mythical Vonnegut universe. Tell us about it.

A: Many of Vonnegut’s novels are connected through recurring characters and places – think Midland City, Ilium, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater, Tralfamadorians, etc. – but these characters and places are often altered to fit the needs of whatever story they appear in. There doesn’t seem to be much biographical (or geographical in the case of the fictional towns) continuity with these recurrences. The characters simply exist in Vonnegut’s fictional universe and the author utilizes them here and there to serve an ever-evolving purpose. Aside from Kilgore Trout, the Tralfamadorians are probably the best example of this, as they first appear in Sirens of Titan (1959) as a mechanical race of hive mind-esque aliens, and then play a prominent role in Slaughterhouse-Five as organic beings with a much different appearance. Vonnegut himself has a similarly varying role in the fictional universe due to his numerous and unique appearances as character/editor. The alternative ending of the unpublished Cat’s Cradle added a few new connective tendrils to this universe. A dog has some significance in this draft, which is also the case in Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, among others. The unpublished draft also introduces a famous Vonnegut phrase. The author ends Slaughterhouse-Five with, “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” On the final page of the unpublished Cat’s Cradle draft, after the author is confronted with his own death, Vonnegut writes: “‘Poo-tee-wee phweet?’ said a bird. Somewhere a dog barked. ‘Coming,’ I said” (Vonnegut mss.). So the original ending of Cat’s Cradle shared many similarities with what would eventually be the ending of Slaughterhouse-Five, right down to the unknowability of where dog barks originate and the language of birds.

Q: Much of the essay explores themes of contrived meaning and self-deception. How are these themes expressed in Vonnegut’s work?

A: I argue, and many critics have reached similar conclusions, that several of Vonnegut’s recurring themes are informed and can be interpreted through the numerous terms created by Vonnegut for his fictional religion Bokononism (which appears in Cat’s Cradle). Chief among these terms are granfalloon and foma. Granfalloons are a sort of artificial collective created by groups of individuals, often subconsciously, to instill a sense of interconnectivity and communal importance. Granfalloons are typically constructed through arbitrary connections and are often contextually presented as false (indeed, Vonnegut defines this term by explaining it as a false karass, which is a group of people who are connected meaningfully). “Hoosiers” are one such granfalloon. Foma, on the other hand, are simply little harmless lies an individual tells to find comfort. Occurrences of both granfalloonery and foma are everywhere in Vonnegut’s work, though they are only labeled as such in Cat’s Cradle. My essay argues that this self-deception and contrived sense of importance, evident through occurrences of granfalloonery and foma, is essentially present and of primary concern in much of Vonnegut’s work. The most obvious example would be in Slapstick, or Lonesome No More (1976), where a social system is instituted that provides all members of society with a massive extended family through the arbitrary assignment of communal last names. No one is lonely, everyone is cared for, but the connections are random and perhaps meaningless. And it’s not that Vonnegut believes granfalloonery to be a bad thing. If it brings people comfort, then so what if it’s all made up?

Q: The Bokononist term zah-mah-ki-bo refers to one’s inevitable destiny. How might Vonnegut have predicted his own death in his fiction?

A: In the early draft of Cat’s Cradle, the narrator is eventually referred to as “Mr. Vonnegut” (no first name is ever provided). As the alternative ending is reaching a close, “Mr. Vonnegut” and Bokonon are discussing the tale being put down in the book, and essentially revealing how each character will die. “Mr. Vonnegut” asks about each character, knowing Bokonon can accurately predict the death because the character had prophesized the death of three characters earlier in the story. When “Mr. Vonnegut” realizes there is no other character to ask about except himself, Vonnegut writes, “I started to ask him how I [Mr. Vonnegut the character] would die, decided I didn’t want to know. He told me anyway. ‘A dog,’ he said. ‘My condolences.’” (Vonnegut mss.). While a clear distinction must be made between Vonnegut-character and Vonnegut-author, it could be described as apropos that this description of the Mr. Vonnegut character’s death proved to be one final instance of Vonnegut, the man, blurring the line between fact and fiction, as Charles Shields explains Vonnegut’s death in the biography, And so It Goes: “Outside the brownstone, as he and Flour reached the bottom steps, the little dog spun around to see if he was coming. He tripped over her leash, pitched forward full-length, and struck the right side of his face on the sidewalk, losing consciousness instantly” (415). This fall killed him, and thus the prophesized death of Mr. Vonnegut, the character, caught up with Kurt Vonnegut, the man, as well. As I write in my essay…Somewhere a dog barked, and Mr. Vonnegut finally answered.

Q: For this essay you did research in the Vonnegut Collection at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. What was that experience like? Did you find anything in the collection that surprised you?

A: It really was an incredible experience. I grew up just forty minutes Northwest of Indiana University in a town called Terre Haute. I was living in Texas at the time, so my research trip was like a homecoming, as well. Encountering the early draft of Cat’s Cradle was about the closest I’ll probably come to feeling like Indiana Jones (we in literary academics welcome our thrills where we can). I remember looking around for someone to talk to about the draft, but all the librarians were busy and not necessarily interested in an overexcited stranger waving sixty year old archived materials in their face. Instead, I emailed Dr. Robert Tally, Jr. (my thesis director at the time and author of Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel) to tell him about some of the great material I encountered. Once I recovered from this excitement I moved on to the original draft of Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut typed out the early pages of his second novel and then stapled each page to the bottom of the previous one. Each chapter, therefore, is stored in a scroll-like fashion, rolled up side by side in boxes. When unrolled, each chapter is only eight and half inches wide but could be dozens of feet long. I had to unroll them on tables that spanned the entire reading room. It felt like unrolling lost works from the library at Alexandria.

Q: Are you working on anything new Vonnegut-related?

A: I always have a few Vonnegut-related irons in the fire. I am presenting a paper entitled “Mapping Midland: Kurt Vonnegut and Small Town, U.S.A.” in Atlanta at the 2017 South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference, and another paper entitled “Echoes through Space and Time: Non-Linear Temporality in Slaughterhouse-Five and Arrival” at the 2018 Pop Culture/American Culture Association in Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis. Additionally, the Kurt Vonnegut Society always organizes two panels at the annual American Literature Association, so I will be in San Francisco in May chairing one panel and likely presenting a paper on the other (keep an eye out for the call for papers for these panels). Lastly, a version of the essay we are currently discussing will hopefully be forthcoming.

Q: Many readers enjoy finding “Vonnegut the author” pop up as a character in his fiction. Why do think readers have responded so positively?  

A: I think Vonnegut created a very likeable persona and impressively integrated that persona into his writing style. His writing, no matter how fantastical, reads like you are sitting having a chat over coffee or beers with an old, seemingly free-wheeling friend who always gets to the punchline of the story right when you think the tale is off the rails. This is especially the case for me in Sirens of Titan when the contents of Salo’s message is finally revealed. Occasionally this style turns readers off, but those who appreciate Vonnegut’s brand of candid wit find themselves endlessly drawn to returning to his work. The only other author I have ever felt like that with is Tolkien, and only with The Hobbit. The Hobbit reads like a grandparent telling a story to his or her gathered grandkids (or like an uncle spinning a tale to his furry-footed nephew). It was the first book I really fell in love with as a child, and when I read it that style still pulls me back to my first time reading it. Vonnegut seems to accomplish this is all of his work, and I think most readers find that endlessly rewarding.

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Zachary Perdieu is the co-Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, and he holds an MA in literature from Texas State University, where he completed a master’s thesis on Kurt Vonnegut and social normalization. He is currently pursuing a PhD in literature at the University of Georgia. He has presented papers on Vonnegut at the American Literature Association’s annual conferences in 2015 and 2016 and has upcoming paper presentations at the 2017 South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference and the 2018 Pop Culture/American Culture Association conference, entitled “Mapping Midland: Kurt Vonnegut and Small Town, USA” and “Echoes through Space and Time: Non-Linear Temporality in Slaughterhouse-Five and Arrival” respectively. He lives in Athens, Georgia.