In college I had the pleasure of reading and studying Kurt Vonnegut. The way he uses language and the structure of a novel is quite impressive, but some of his characters and ideas often go over readers heads. Here are three tips that should help you understand Kurt Vonnegut and all his novels.
If you do not read Vonnegut’s works under the lens of satire, you might find yourself misinterpreting the work and missing the meaning. For example, you might read Breakfast of Champions and be wildly amused by it–all the drawings, the characters involved with “chemicals,” etc. might make you laugh, but it could also make you think Vonnegut wrote the work just to be funny. No, he definitely had something in mind when reading! If you read it satirically, however, you will be trying to understand what he could have been referencing or critiquing.
Much of Vonnegut’s work, most notably Slaughterhouse-Five. has something to say about war. Although not every book necessarily talks directly about war, sometimes the characters have been involved in a war and are traumatized by it. In Breakfast of Champions, you can find drawings of a bomb and references to bomb materials and companies, while in Slaughterhouse-Five, the bombing of dresden is at the forefront. It is important to understand, then, that Vonnegut himself was at the bombing of Dresden and was involved with the war. Although different schools of literary theory will dismiss everything they know about the author, sometimes Vonnegut makes that difficult since much of his experiences are written into the stories. Regardless, at the very least have war in mind while you read the stories, all the while thinking satirically about them!
3) Characters overlap
Many of the characters overlap between novels. It is helpful, then, to read as much of Vonnegut as possible so that these “guest appearances” shed more light on your reading experience. For example, Eliot Rosewater shows up in Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-five, but also has a featured book of his own: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. To me, the way Vonnegut reuses characters and places them within the same fictional universe is clever and amazingly creative. So do yourself a favor, commit yourself to reading a lot of Vonnegut–you will probably be a better reader of his books for doing so.
As a side not, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five had an impact on the hit TV show Lost. There are many similarities between Desmond’s time travel and Billy Pilgrim’s (the main character in Slaughterhouse-Five). Moreover, Faraday explains time travel to others on the show by labeling it “unstuck in time,” which is a direct phrase from Vonnegut’s novel. Last but not least, both Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim are mentioned in the background of an episode, “Meet Kevin Johnson,” when Michael has the television on.