Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi on the 1961 story and its relationship to the Kennedy Assassination, Trump, and digital censorship
From “America This Week,” the free transcript of this week’s story discussion. This week, “Harrison Bergeron” by the great Kurt Vonnegut:
Matt Taibbi: This week’s story is Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut, which has a lot of predictive power about a couple of things in modern society.
Vonnegut was always one of my favorites. I liked him as a kid, among other things, because he was easy to read. The paragraphs were small and separated. He drew pictures that were funny. He openly didn’t take literature seriously. He had a great sense of humor, and the message was, I always thought gentle, humanistic, encouraging, and optimistic, and the stories were great. But his short stories are not something that I ever really got into. So, this was interesting for me. What are your thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut?
Walter Kirn: I mean, to reintroduce him to maybe younger listeners or to people who weren’t fans, Kurt Vonnegut is an American novelist whose major works were produced in the sixties and seventies and the eighties to some extent, who was a World War II veteran, whose formative experience in life was being on the ground at the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. And so he experienced war at a level of horrific industrial incineration that was unique. And he came back to the United States. He’s originally from Indiana. He was from a commercial family in Indianapolis. They had a department or maybe a hardware store chain.
He went to work in upstate New York, maybe for General Electric or some big post-war company. And in this way he was like Joseph Heller. Heller and Vonnegut lived in some ways parallel lives. They both came back from terrifying experiences in World War II to try to join normie corporate America in the fifties. And they in some ways failed to bond and became satirical novelists whose target was what we might call the organization. The person who doesn’t ask questions whose identity is subsumed by some absurd either army or company or social scene. And for me, Vonnegut, you say he had a sense of humor. He almost had nothing but a sense of humor.
Matt Taibbi: I was going to say, he was also less vicious than Joseph Heller was in his caricatures.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and that probably has to do with temperament, but also may have to do with the fact that Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II was approximately 10,000 times more horrifying than Heller’s. He saw a major European city reduced to rubble and its population to body parts and scavenging animals almost, in the wake of this. And he was held prisoner there. In any case, his greatest book is probably his account of that bombing interspliced with a weird science fiction story called Slaughterhouse-Five.
Matt Taibbi: With a character named Montana Wildhack. I always thought that was a great name.
Walter Kirn: Montana Wildhack. So in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut takes a character who was a fellow soldier of his, who he names Billy Pilgrim, who’s an American everyman. A simple, innocent American everyman. And in the spliced part of the novel, he imagines Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” and becoming a zoo creature on another planet.
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