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The Comedy of War

Kurt Vonnegut uses a potent mix of dark humor and clear-eyed compassion to expose the realities of war.

When it comes to writing fiction, popular wisdom is wrong: People really do like a smart aleck. This is especially true if you're tackling difficult topics such as violence, injustice or the various brands of human cruelty. A wry or sarcastic voice can engage readers who otherwise might flee the scene. Of course, you must have a legitimate beef—a good reason for presenting a voice of dissent—and your jokes must be funny.

Kurt Vonnegut, author of such bestselling novels as Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Hocus Pocus, can claim rights to both. A survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II, Vonnegut experienced war's carnage firsthand, and he understands humor's usefulness in expressing the difficult truths that emerge from such tragic events.

Using techniques that range from bathroom humor to sarcasm, Vonnegut's assessments of humanity are just as hilarious as they are scathing. But underneath his casual tone and off-the-wall humor is an earnest commitment to humanity and a deep disdain for the cruel absurdities of war.

GROSS BUT PROFOUND

Vonnegut's not a joke snob. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he uses humor's lowest common denominator, the gross-out joke, in a scene where a group of soldiers has become ill from a recent meal:

An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, "There they go, there they go." He meant his brains.

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

What starts as a simple joke about the soldiers' poor living conditions ends as a genuine moment of reckoning. The narrator (who's a fictional version of Vonnegut) chooses to make himself a character within the scene he's describing. In doing so, he's reminding the reader that he was also present at the event (and the other, far more terrible events) he describes—that he wasn't spared any of the pain that the others experienced.

By naming himself directly, the narrator closes the gap between the reader and the text. It's as if Vonnegut is reaching out of the book, grabbing the reader's lapels, and saying, "Don't forget—this really happened."

GET SARCASTIC

Vonnegut's easy, conversational style is a perfect foil for some of the shocking information he conveys. Here, the narrator of Hocus Pocus matter-of-factly describes the death of his brother-in-law in Vietnam:

Jack Patton was killed by a sniper in Hué-pronounced "whay." He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Combat Engineers. I wasn't there, but they say he got it right between the eyes. Talk about marksmanship! Whoever shot him was a real winner.

The style here is so casual as to seem almost flippant. But Vonnegut's not being disrespectful. Black humor is a classic method for dealing with situations that are, in normal circumstances, impossible to deal with.

This is a realistic depiction of how many soldiers, numbed to the horrors around them, cope with loss by diminishing its significance. Still, Vonnegut makes the real point of this story clear when he describes what happened next:

The sniper didn't stay a winner very long, though, I heard. ... I heard he couldn't have been more than 15 years old. He was a boy, not a man, but if he was going to play men's games he was going to have to pay men's penalties.

By making momentary light of a tragic loss, then turning around to show its full ramifications, Vonnegut effectively conveys a powerful message.

Instead of forcing his readers to face unceasing negativity, Vonnegut expresses his deeply held passions with a crooked smile. A character in Slaughterhouse-Five asks the narrator, who's planning to write an antiwar book, "Why don't you write an antiglacier book instead?" (The point being that wars are no easier to stop than glaciers.) That line pretty well sums up Vonnegut's attitude toward war—and his odd approach to storytelling.

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