Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction

Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction

Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction

Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction


This text offers readings and criticism of Kurt Vonnegut's three major works of nonfiction, his uncollected pieces and his manner of public speaking. It explains how Vonnegut's personal visions developed into a style of public responsibility that mirrored the growth of his fiction.


When on November 1, 1993, Kurt Vonnegut spoke to an overflow crowd at Heritage Hall in the Civic Center of Lexington, Kentucky, he was almost certainly motivated by a principle drawn from Cat’s Cradle, his novel published thirty years before.

At the beginning of Cat’s Cradle the narrator describes how life has become less nonsensical to him after learning about an honestly bogus Caribbean religion called Bokononism, the central belief of which concerns the notion of karass. Humanity, it is said, is organized into teams who fulfill God’s Will without ever knowing what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass—and having any intimation of who else may be in one’s karass gives a sense of deep purpose to the otherwise chaotic nature of life.

The comic nature of this novel derives from how unlikely and apparently disparate the membership of a karass can be, stretching across generations, geographies, and cultures to form surprising but ultimately necessary connections. As a thematic device, it allows Vonnegut to introduce and synthesize themes as dichotomous as war and peace, hate and love, absurdity and meaning. Philosophically, his prototypical religion lets him explore how people can derive benefit from a belief system based on its own self-evident fabrication. the greatest benefit, however, is to his novel’s structure. Modeled as it is on the notion of karass, Cat’s Cradle ranges as far and wide as a jazz musician’s solo, dipping and weaving through apparent impossibilities to form what in the end is as coherent as a harmonic pattern’s resolution. the method can be found not just here but anywhere in Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction. and shortly after the publication of Cat’s Cradle in 1963, it became apparent in his essays and public addresses as well.

In connection with his 1993 appearance in Lexington knowledgeable journalists made reference to this notion of karass. It was a seeming contradiction, after all, that an acknowledged atheist should appear on behalf of Midway College, supported as it was by the Disciples of Christ. and how odd that this religiously affiliated school, raising funds for its new college library, should seek the help . . .

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