Kurt Vonnegut: President of the United States.

lkurt vonnegut “From the Collection of the Artist.”

Kurt Vonnegut turns up in the most unlikely of places. I’m not familiar with his writing, but I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis Liar’s Poker in which the author quotes Vonnegut below to describe how the bond market works to distort reality, and  to make it seem normal, a theme the everyman Billy Pilgrim’s character stumbles into in his Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

 There is a magic moment, during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who has to receive it has not done so. An alert lawyer [read bond trader] will make that moment his own, possessing that treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it and passing it on.

This bring to mind the way coinage used to be debased when it was precious metals made out of a substance equal to value of the currency, for example, either gold or silver, and it was an offence against the king or ruler to shave a coin. Now New York and London Stock exchanges are one of the greatest industries, in monetary terms, devised by man, and when it fails thousands of billions of pounds of public money needs to be spent to keep the foul-smelling water of commerce drinkable for the rest of us.

In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in a shop that sells porn, but he’s more interested in a badly written sci-fi book used as a front to make it seem like a respectable book store. The book is written by an author he knows and admires Kilgore Trout. The narrative in Kilgore’s book matches Pilgrim’s own experience of being abducted by the Tranfalmadorians and is about a man and woman kidnapped by extra-terrestrials and taken to another planet, Zircon-212, and put on display in a zoo. He has another of his epiphanies that underpin the wisdom of the book.

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along the wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth and it was up to them to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board were all fakes of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo…

The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course…The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked. Olive oil went up.

Billy Pilgrim’s ability to transcend time and travel backwards and forwards showed him the fickle fiction of such fortunes. He followed the traditional path to wealth by marrying the obese boss’s daughter nobody else wants to marry, including Billy.

But there is a prophetic touch in the car stickers Billy Pilgrim passes sporting the message Reagan for President. Vonnegut’s novel was published in 1969. He had no way of knowing that the friend of Bonzo—and I don’t mean George W—would actually become President. Not even Vonnegut could have imagined that.

To take a further jump in time and imagine a woman President in Hillary Clinton –perhaps? Vonnegut imagined a world in which the fire-bombing of Dresden with conventional weapons with a power more lethal than the atomic age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime and unjustifiable. Hillary Clinton’s big message and big sell to the American people that the American future depend on equality of opportunity and is certainly far more left wing than the big two political parties in Britain offer:

To ensure a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Rio Grande valley grows up with the same shot of success as Charlotte [Clinton] will.

Vonnegut’s character, Howard W Campbell, an American playwright that aligned himself with the Nazi Party strips the hubris of such messages to the bone.  Campbell writes a monograph that Billy Pilgrim gets to read. The reader looking over his character’s shoulder gets to read it too and assess its validity.

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor and urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humourist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone one with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters…asking this cruel question, ‘if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?’

Their most destructive untruth is it is very easy to make money. They will in fact not acknowledge how hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those without money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have to do less for the poor publicly and privately.

I’m beginning to believe that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were time-travellers and they’ve jumped in their spaceship and landed here in April 2015. If Vonnegut can pluck Billy Pilgrim from the ether, the Tranfalmadorians and their zoo, then perhaps we can pluck Vonnegut from death and elect him President of the United States, or even Britain. I’d vote for him.


Kurt Vonnegut (2010) Look at the Birdie


This is not a modern collection of thirteen and a bit Kurt Vonnegut short stories as the publication date suggests. In a letter to a Mr Miller dated 1951 Kurt Vonnegut addresses anthropology, the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894 (which interested me) and among other things, whether writing can be learned at a school of writing. He concludes: ‘This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self pity…I quit GE, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

This is Kurt Vonnegut before he was Kurt Vonnegut. His stories here are dated. The Petrified Ants I, II, III, for example, has brothers Peter and Josef, Russia’s leading myrmecologists (the study of ants), being sent from the University of Dnepropetrovsk to a mine sunk half- a-mile deep on a site of radioactive mineral water were petrified ants have been found by miners. The brothers are overseen by Borgorov, ‘favourite third cousin of Stalin himself’. The petrified ants mimic man’s evolution from hunter-gatherer to capitalism and communism. Obviously capitalism is the better of the two. This is where the petrified ants die enmasse, but the dilemma is what narrative line our intrepid myrmecologists will take? My thoughts slowed to a trickle.  I read on more through habit than interest.

‘Ed Luby’s Key Club’ is the longest story, about twenty-five pages, and is perhaps the pick of the bunch. It starts promisingly. ‘Ed Luby worked for Al Capone. And then he went into bootlegging on his own, made a lot of money at it.’ Ed Luby returned to his old mill town of Illium and bought it. He bought the radio station and several business. He also purchased the town’s restaurant and called it Ed Luby’s Steak House. Only the most select residents and bigwigs, such as the Judge and Mayor of the town got an invitation and a key that opened the front door to his restaurant and exclusive club.

Harve and Claire Elliot didn’t know this. They owned a small farm, but once a year, for fourteen years running, they went into town and ‘splurged’ like ‘King Farouk’. They make the mistake of going to Ed Luby’s Steak House uninvited. They make the mistake of being small town hicks and not taking no for an answer. A drunk man and woman turn up. Luby doesn’t let them in either. But he hits the woman so hard he kills her. His goons put the woman’s body in Harve’s car and tell his wife to drive…or else. They get picked up a mile from the scene by the chief of police, Luby’s brother. He tells Harve that he has witnesses, the Mayor and Judge Wampler,  both had seen Harve slug the woman and kill her. Claire is told she’ll never see her kids again. Both are going down. Harve’s lawyer refuses to defend him, tells him to plead guilty. The story goes great guns. The denouement however could have been scripted by J Edgar Hoover.

If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look. If you’re not a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look.