Still from 'Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time'
Still from the documentary

"When a person dies,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his 1969 masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five, “he only appears to die. He is very much alive in the past, present, and future, always has existed, always will exist.” Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s hero, learns this lesson on the planet Tralfamadore: “When a Tralfamadoran sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that person is just fine in plenty of other moments . . . Now, when I myself hear someone is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”

So it goes that Vonnegut isn’t dead. While his body may have expired in the year 2007, his books and ideas live on. And now his life has been captured in a new documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, currently streaming in the United States, the UK and Ireland. It’s been 40 years in the making, having started when Robert Weide – now an Emmy award-winning director – was 23 years old, and wrote to his literary idol.

That was back in 1982. Vonnegut responded and invited Weide to look him up the next time he was in New York. A friendship blossomed. Over the next 39 years, Weide would go on to direct the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as documentaries on some American comedians – W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. But it was only last year that the documentary on his literary idol finally hit the screens. It’s a deep dive into Vonnegut’s life, his upbringing and creative output – but it’s also about the friendship that the two men developed over nearly four decades.

Banned books and the Kurt Vonnegut museum

Make friends. Welcome strangers. That’s what Kurt might say about the documentary. “We eventually starve,” Rodney Allen, a Vonnegut scholar and author of the book Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, says, “if we don’t feel love and don’t give love.” Vonnegut’s “love letters” were his books. In a career that spanned over 50 years, he published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays and five nonfiction works. Many of his books are still taught in schools in the United States, most notably Slaughterhouse-Five and the lesser-known Cat’s Cradle, a science-fiction satire that preys on the fear of witnessing Armageddon – and worse, surviving it.

That doesn’t mean that his work has always been popular. Many of his books were banned in his lifetime. Slaughterhouse-Five has been objected to or removed from various schools a number of times. New York’s Island Trees School District, in a famous 1982 case, called it “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy”. And the censorship hasn’t gone away. A school board in Republic, Missouri, decided to withdraw the book from its libraries in 2011.

And yet, his spirit lives on. In his hometown of Indianapolis, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library attracts visitors the world over. It houses such artefacts as his typewriter, reading glasses and his famous artwork – often doodles of faces and stars – loaned by the family. It also includes his Purple Heart, a US military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving. Although Vonnegut may have laughed at the idea of anyone “learning” from his life, the museum and library also offers classes, workshops and gathering spaces for the city. And when the libraries in Missouri withdrew Slaughterhouse-Five from their shelves, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered a free copy to all the students of the district.

"We are doomed to be free"

What message, if any, do we take away from the work and life of Kurt Vonnegut? The Los Angeles Times notes that he will “rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and premier novelist of the counterculture.” In 2015, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. But he has also been called, among other things, a “Christ-loving atheist”.

“He thought that nothing meant anything,” Allen says. “We are doomed to be free. It’s hard. He was for anything to give someone comfort.” That could mean watching movies with a box of hot buttered popcorn. It could mean walking the streets of Manhattan with your pals looking for a delicious sandwich. Or it could mean going to church.

Born in 1922, Kurt Vonnegut came from a long line of freethinkers. Clemens Vonnegut, his great-grandfather, helped found the Freethinker Society in Indianapolis in 1870, a rationalist organisation that attacked Biblical infallibility and advocated man’s moral freedom. Kurt majored in biochemistry at Cornell and considered himself a humanist. Later, he served for many years as the American Humanist Association’s honorary president. He observed that “being a humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishments after you are dead.”

His books, however, are soaked in Christian symbols and themes. Take, for instance, Slapstick, where he invents a religion he calls “Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped”, founded on the principal that the Second Coming has already started, but that upon coming back to the world, Jesus was kidnapped by nefarious forces. Everyone in Slapstick is looking for the kidnapped Christ, turning their heads every which way.

As Chris Lafave, the curator of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, says of Slapstick, “Vonnegut used religion as a somewhat sympathetic opiate for dealing with the pain of living. He did not want to be perceived as overly hostile to organised religion . . . nor do I think he wanted to be perceived as knowing all the answers.” Instead, he asked questions, and would laugh at the thought that there was some kind of “grand design” to life.

That laughter, raspy and cough-shortened because of all the cigarettes he smoked, reverberates throughout Weide’s documentary. Vonnegut liked a good joke. Life, itself, was a joke. And some punchlines hit hard. He famously survived the Second World War by hiding in a meat locker. An American prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, he hid there during the 1945 aerial bombing of Dresden that killed thousands of people – a harrowing experience that helped give birth to Slaughterhouse-Five. His war experiences form a large part of the documentary.

A lasting message of kindness

"The world is sick with loneliness,” Edith Vonnegut says. “My dad believed in community. He longed for a tribe. He longed for primitive societies with relatives everywhere and everyone looking out for each other. Work on that – the local level. You’ll find peace there.”

It seems like peace is hard to come by these days. America, the country Vonnegut fought for in the Second World War and wrote about extensively in his wild-dreamed books, is being pulled apart at the seams. When Unstuck in Time was released in the US last year, police officers were on trial over another killing of a Black man. Anti-vaxxers were harassing medical workers. School boards were having roaring debates over wearing masks in schools. Meanwhile, climate change is real, yet no one really knows what to do about it. There’s gun violence and food insecurity. Social media is making us less social. And we are continuing to pull “contentious” books off the shelves of our libraries and schools.

So it goes that Vonnegut isn’t dead and we need him more than ever. Because Vonnegut tries to be kind, and tries still to be kind – as someone, right now, pulls Slaughterhouse-Five off a library shelf in Philadelphia; as someone, right now, sits with their spouse in their living room to watch Weide’s new documentary. Vonnegut once said all he wanted to do was poison people’s minds with humanity. Maybe that’s what we can learn from his life: how to be kind, and how to be poisonous.

"Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time" is now streaming in the UK via Altitude Films.

This piece is from the New Humanist autumn 2022 edition. Subscribe here.