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27 July 2022

Swapping the sunshine for the dark fatalism of Kurt Vonnegut

In Unstuck in Time, a new documentary about the writer, Vonnegut says he prefers laughter to crying – and it's easy to see why.

By Pippa Bailey

Sometimes you can tell a date isn’t going to go anywhere within the first five minutes. I met a guy for a drink earlier this year who had “so it goes” tattooed on the inside of his forearm. “Ah,” I said, “Kurt Vonnegut!” “What?” he replied. I thought of this exchange one recent Saturday when I left the sunshine revellers to their tinnies and entered the cool dark of my local Picturehouse to watch Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. I had the screen entirely to myself – for good reason, you might think.

Unstuck in Time required two directors because the first one, Robert Weide, became so close to Vonnegut over years of filming (he first approached the American author about a documentary in 1982, and their working relationship ended with Vonnegut’s death in 2007) that he became a character himself. It’s appropriately meta for a film about an author who, at one point in Breakfast of Champions, enters the narrative to tell Kilgore Trout that he is a character in a book.

Vonnegut leaves Weide voicemails – “How the hell are ya? I guess you’re out doing the twist or something” – counsels him about whether to get married, and eventually writes him into one of his novels, Timequake. Weide (best-known for directing Curb Your Enthusiasm) expresses his dislike of documentary-makers who insert themselves into their work – “Who cares? But when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some explanation.”

I first read Vonnegut’s books – as did Weide – as a teenager, and fell for their crackling irreverence, their time- and genre-bending unreality, their shades of dark and light. If you’ve read Vonnegut then you know something of his story; he’s not squeamish about writing his own experience: “It’s all I have to talk about.”

[See also: From Top Gun to Jurassic World: blockbuster cinema is back!]

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Vonnegut was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and, like Slaughterhouse Five’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim, was a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden. Of clearing bodies from the rubble afterwards he says: “I didn’t feel particularly bad when I did it. I didn’t feel much of anything.” War, he says, “was a great adventure of my life”. When this insouciance is relayed to his daughter, she says he’s “full of it”. He certainly had a dark sense of humour: he chuckles when remembering a fellow serviceman who died of spinal meningitis during training, having never seen combat, and guffaws about another man who was in the bath when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was so surprised he hit his head on the faucet and died.

Vonnegut says he prefers laughter to crying, and it’s easy to see why. Six months before he was captured in Europe, Vonnegut found his mother dead, on Mother’s Day; she had taken her own life. In 1958, his beloved sister died from cancer two days after her husband was killed in a train accident, and Vonnegut and his first wife took in their four sons. It is hard not to consider the refrain “so it goes” – which appears more than 100 times in Slaughterhouse Five, every time someone dies – differently, knowing all this.

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I don’t mean to make Unstuck in Time sound melancholy; it is charming, too. It was Laurel and Hardy who “gave [Vonnegut] permission not to take life too seriously” – this early influence, at least, we have in common. He learned much about writing from reporting for his school newspaper: “Be clear and don’t bluff,” he says, and, “Say as much as possible as soon as possible.” Vonnegut’s daughters recount how he would write: hunched over a low coffee table, listening to elevator music and chain-smoking until the air was thick with fumes. (Animated tendrils of smoke drift upwards over every still in the film.) Vonnegut tells the story of how he came up with Tralfamadore, a fictional planet that recurs in his work. The extended family were at Lake Maxinkuckee in Indiana and Vonnegut’s older cousin was pointing out stars and constellations in the sky. Then, a ten-year-old Vonnegut points and says: “There’s Tralfamadore!”

It was, I thought, as I passed the now considerably more sozzled sunshine revellers on my way home, they who had missed out. God bless you, Mr Vonnegut.

[See also: In an age of streaming and endless choice, I cling to my DVD collection]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special