Vonnegut’s work asks us to make a crucial choice

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would not want us to miss him. “I am going to sue the … manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks!” Vonnegut wrote in the last of his 24 books, 2005’s “A Man Without a Country.” “Right on the package … [they] have promised to kill me. But now I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”

The New York Times reported last Thursday that “brain injuries as a result of a fall” beat the Pall Malls. At 84, Vonnegut is dead, survived by his wife, seven children and 24 books.

A person lives as long as his legacy. Vonnegut, who felt his life’s length was “in terrible taste,” might not care for this idea, but the reason why comes from the very spirit that now we must sustain: Vonnegut’s blend of irony, hilarity and humility, in a world often lacking all three.

Vonnegut proved what our literature professors always say: that “much madness is divinest sense,” as Emily Dickinson wrote; that Don Quixote was the sane one after all. But Quixote took windmills for evil giants. Vonnegut, one notch crazier, stared down evil giants, laughing as if at dressed-up windmills.

One of seven American captives in World War II to survive Dresden’s firebombing, Vonnegut placed this experience at the center of his masterpiece, 1969’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Following each death comes the comment, “So it goes.” (“The Germans carried the corpse out. The corpse was Wild Bob. So it goes.” Postwar, we find: “The champagne was dead. So it goes.”) Unspeakable arrogance births what Vonnegut later called “pure nonsense” and “pointless destruction,” which, like the sun, cannot be looked at directly, but only through the lens of nihilistic understatement.

The phrase comes from Tralfamadore, a planet whose inhabitants travel in time as humans travel in space. They see the dead as merely “in bad condition at that particular moment.” Having “come unstuck in time” — along with Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist — they are extricated from temporal narratives of progress and decay. They have nothing to look forward to or to regret. The world simply is what it is.

“How does the Universe end?” Billy asks the Tralfamadorians. This question was grave in 1969, when Armageddon tinted everything from elementary-school nuclear attack drills to Pentagon policy. The Tralfamadorians ascribe the apocalypse the same high-tech alacrity, but no significance: “Experimenting with new fuels … a Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.” The passage concludes: “So it goes.”

Careening toward cynicism, Vonnegutism veers away at the last possible second. As the mind-numbing black humor melts away purpose and sense, it leaves behind the characters and their moments together. Stripping the world down to human connections, Vonnegut rebuilds meaning around cherishing these in the only time we have.

“What Uncle Alex found … objectionable about human beings,” Vonnegut writes in “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” (only Vonnegut would use such a title), “was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ ”

In a lesser writer’s hands, that phrase might ring Hallmark hollow. As Vonnegut has written, “People so rarely tell us the truth.” But amid all Vonnegut’s forays to alien planets lies the savagery of truth. Given the bleak landscape into which he sets this rose of a story, one feels the urgency of the fact that all we’ve got is each other.

“Perhaps others,” Vonnegut concludes, “can also make use of that heirloom from Uncle Alex.”

Vonnegut’s oeuvre imagines a world in which everyone did so. In “A Man Without a Country,” Vonnegut tells the story of Powers Hapgood, a Harvard alum who goes to work for the CIO, fighting for higher pay and safer working conditions. Testifying in court after a picket-line scuffle, Hapgood faces this question from the judge: “Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you’re a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Hapgood answers, “Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in middle school with a teacher named David Smith. One of the few teachers who submitted columns to the high-school paper, articles that were in fact good enough for any professional outlet, Mr. Smith introduced a dozen middle-school boys to English. He taught us the difference between “that” and “which,” almost exclusively through example sentences about “The Simpsons.” He gave us Vonnegut when no received wisdom would have prescribed it for pint-sized males obsessed with bras and fantasy baseball. When adolescent bravado rose to a din, Mr. Smith would deliver the line that won the most laughs of all — and then return to Vonnegut.

In the seven years since, the temptation has swelled among politicians, clerics, pundits and all of us to say, “There are true answers, and I’ve got ’em.” This temptation has unleashed mounting vitriol and wreckage. We are losing Vonnegut when we most need his call to value people more than answers.

That instinct in Uncle Alex, Hapgood and Mr. Smith: How does one learn it, let alone train it?

Legislation alone cannot do this work. Legislation is a good start — “A Man Without a Country” calls for salvaging our environment and workers’ rights, rather than prosecuting the Iraq war — but the cultural change arises from the sum of small interactions, which stem from choices we each must make about the people we want to be and the country we want to live in.

The Bible offers a choice between curse and blessing. Vonnegut proposes we choose between “So it goes” and “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

Vonnegut is no longer around to remind us to see the world this way. It is now up to us to remind ourselves — and to make our choice.

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.