Kurt Vonnegut is a poster child for postmodernism.
One of the big names of the 1960s and '70s, he's remembered as a major satirist and voice of U.S. counterculture—and his works are perfect go-to texts if you're trying to get a handle on some of the main themes and techniques of postmodern literature.
Not only do they contain a boatload of irony and dark humor; they're also not afraid to get into more serious topics like state oppression, violence, paranoia, and the horrors of World War II. The war, in particular, was personal to Vonnegut, who had served as a soldier and been held prisoner during 1944-1945—an experience that had a big impact on his life and his writing.
While some of his earlier works had a pretty straightforward style, Vonnegut started using more experimental literary techniques during the '60s. This, after all, was the decade of the Beat Generation, Hendrix, and the Summer of Love.
Slaughterhouse-Five, which combines a World War II theme with an off-the-wall mix of time travel and aliens, is considered his masterpiece—and Vonnegut himself gave it an A+ when he rated his works. Breakfast of Champions was even more experimental, and, like many of Vonnegut's other texts, is heavy on metafiction and intertextuality.
So dive in to get a taste of all things postmodern.
Vonnegut's best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is about a soldier called Billy Pilgrim, who travels back and forward through time, relives the events in his life, and even finds himself abducted by aliens. Vonnegut includes plenty of references to other texts—both real and made-up—ranging from Jacqueline Susann's 1966 smash Valley of the Dolls to a novel by one of Billy's pesky alien abductors. Yep: we're talking all of the postmodern credentials: fragmentation, repetition, an experimental structure, and intertextuality.
This isn't just a zany time travel adventure, though—it's also a semi-autobiographical work that tackles the tough topic of World War II. Vonnegut had his fair share of first-hand knowledge of the war: Billy, like Vonnegut, is captured and held in building called Slaughterhouse-Five during the bombing of Dresden. Though Billy gets out alive, the experience has a lasting effect on him in the same way that it did on Vonnegut.
We get a good intro right off the bat: a preface in which Vonnegut remarks that the novel is "jumbled and jangled" since "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." If that's not a postmodern statement on war, we don't know what is.
Breakfast of Champions
With the experimental style of Slaughterhouse-Five having proved so successful, Vonnegut flexed his creative muscles again in Breakfast of Champions (1973). The story is about a businessman, Dwayne Hoover, who becomes fixated with a sci-fi novel written by a guy called Kilgore Trout—fixated so much so that he's unable to recognize that it's a work of fiction. It's a recipe for disaster, as Hoover gets the idea that everyone other than him is a robot and subsequently running riot.
This novel clearly ticks the box when it comes to paranoia, but it contains heaps of other postmodern themes and features, too. Vonnegut tells us straight off that that he's trying to clear his head "of all the junk in there," and the result is a mashup of drawings (including flags, guns, hamburgers, and a flamingo!), characters from his past work, and even an appearance by Vonnegut within the story. Yep, we're in self-reflexive terrain.
The title itself is a reference to the slogan for Wheaties cereal, but Vonnegut piles on the irony—not only does a waitress use the slogan while serving a martini, but Vonnegut also throws in a reference to an Edwardian short story, "Filboid Studge," that's itself a satire on the marketing of breakfast cereal.
Talk about a postmodern field day.
Chew on This
Grand narratives? Forget it. Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle isn't just stuffed with irony—it skewers Enlightenment ideals about truth and progress. Take the fictional religion of Bokonism: truth and knowledge have often been seen as ideal, but for the Bokonians, lies are where it's at. Vonnegut gets into satire here, challenging accepted wisdom and suggesting that things aren't always what they're cracked up to be.
Beginning with the premise of a guy who has become "unstuck in time," Slaughterhouse-Five follows Billy Pilgrim as he journeys back and forth through the events of his life; including those during WWII. For all its craziness, the story was inspired by the author's life, with Vonnegut using the first chapter to talk about his wartime experiences and the difficulty that he has experienced in trying to write them down.
“As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tis-sues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
And so on.Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions