Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


In 1941, an 18-year-old Kurt Vonnegut Jr. inscribed a book to his high-school girlfriend, who would later become his wife. He wrote, “To be shown to our children when they begin to wonder what things are most important in this world that some fools call hell.” Within four years, Vonnegut had lost his mother to suicide and, as an American prisoner of war in World War II, witnessed the bombing of Dresden and its horrific human toll. Sometimes, at least some of the world can be hell. Like any of us, Vonnegut struggled to exist in a world where Dresdens happen but birds also say “poo-tee-weet?” and children dance and elders laugh.

The long-in-the-making documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, by Vonnegut reader-turned-friend Robert B. Weide, knows enough not to pin Vonnegut down. He was complex, at times irascible or depressive, and towards the close of his time here, he was more or less openly yearning for the exit. (The war didn’t kill him, nor did his lifelong affair with Pall Malls, an untruth in advertising that irked him; he died from brain injuries incurred in a fall in his home, and even then it took several weeks for him to be finished, in 2007 at age 84. So it goes.) The documentary is shuffled around non-chronologically, in keeping with Vonnegut’s premise that life is a simultaneous continuum, that someone dead now is still alive somewhere else in the timeline, and vice versa. If we are all already dead, there’s no need to fear the inevitable.

At the same time, the dead leave behind people who want them still alive in this timeline, thanks very much. The man we meet in Unstuck in Time is a man with some scientific training and artistic instincts who created a buffer between himself and life’s intractable sadnesses. It was difficult to be a loved one finding oneself on the outside of that buffer, and Weide acknowledges that; he talks to Vonnegut’s three grown children as well as his four nephews that he took in after their mother, Vonnegut’s sister, died of cancer. They all chuckle about how the old man could be a grouch, a struggling writer trying to feed a family of nine. Ironically, it was Vonnegut’s magnum opus Slaughterhouse-Five, which came out like a kidney stone over a period of years of stops and starts, that redefined him and settled his money worries forever.

Unstuck in Time is a sympathetic, often fond portrait of a man who knew pain and seemed to consider it humanity’s common denominator, our shared cross to bear. He couched his insights in sci-fi narratives or absurdist premises, written simply so anyone could understand. He talked about kindness, the need for community. He looked the part of elder statesman even at 47, when Slaughterhouse-Five landed and made him a father or grandfather figure to a generation facing its own war. (Stephen King, of that demographic, dubbed him “Father Kurt.”) He functioned as a sort of whimsically dyspeptic eminence on TV, the country’s unofficial conscience. Sadly, he began to feel he’d outlived his time. Slaughterhouse-Five (my all-time favorite book) turned out to be his gravestone achievement, though his subsequent books still sold and he found some late-period purchase as a voice against the Iraq War.

Like his spiritual father Mark Twain, Vonnegut knew the importance of tucking his message inside a candied pill of humor. Weide frequently catches Vonnegut dissolving into laughter — sometimes, as one of his daughters points out, at inappropriate times: at his high-school reunion, Vonnegut looks at a plaque commemorating students who lost their lives in WWII, and he wheezes in mirth as he says that several of them died not in action but, say, during training, or of spinal meningitis. (So it goes.) It was a sweet irony to Vonnegut, who knew there was no good way to die in war. During the end credits, Weide gives us a montage of Vonnegut laughing; it isn’t just a cheap way to send us out comforted — it’s an affirmation of Vonnegut’s ethos and his mission as an artist. Maybe his stories would make you sad, but damned if he wasn’t going to go for some jokes along the way.

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