I stopped into the newly-opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library pop-up store in Circle Center Mall last Saturday. And it was a much-needed reminder of just how long it’s been since I’ve read Vonnegut.
I went through a Vonnegut binge starting when I was in eighth grade, reading in quick succession Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Sirens of Titan, Jailbird, and every teenager’s favorite Breakfast of Champions.
I never did make it through his first novel Player Piano, and his most popular novel Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my least favorites of his, or at least it was after I first read it. (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first publication this year.)
Not that I didn’t like the off-the-wall plot, which includes passages on the planet Tralfamadore. The book also has its protagonist Billy Pilgrim being taken prisoner of war in Germany, a plot element based on Vonnegut’s own biography. Like his protagonist, Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden by remaining in an underground slaughterhouse during the conflagration in which 60,000 died.
As a teenager reading the work, however, I disliked the near-constant refrain “So it goes” in the novel, which to me connoted a deep and cynical pessimism.
When I look back at it now, I realize that Vonnegut was a bridge for me between hard-edge science fiction writers like Larry Niven and more literary types of fiction. But nowadays, I’d much rather re-read Slaughterhouse-Five than get tangled up in James Joyce’s Ulysses again.
All of these thoughts bubbled to the surface as I browsed in the new store. The pop-up serves as something of a bridge between their old digs on Senate Avenue (now closed) and whatever building they select for their new location.
In addition to a representative sample of his books—and some historical Vonnegut museum items in display cases—the shop has all kinds of Vonnegut swag for sale including bottled water, logo stickers, T-shirts, typewriter postcards, curse word bookmarks, devotional candles, and asterisk notebooks.
If you’ve read Breakfast of Champions, you know Vonnegut drew his asterisks to look exactly like assholes. Such illustrations of his abound in this, which is perhaps the funniest of his books.
Behind the counter, I found KVML staff Max Goller and Bianca Peña on my visit. Peña, became a museum associate after reading Breakfast of Champions in 2015, who is currently finishing a visual communications degree at Herron School of Art and Design, really liked the drawings in Breakfast of Champions, as well as the screenprints he made later in life.
When I said I recalled seeing a Meridian Street address in one of Vonnegut’s novels, Goller, KVML director of education, reminded me Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, and his great-grandfather immigrated here from Germany.
“His grandfather, who founded the Vonnegut & Bohn architecture firm, was responsible for several buildings in Indy. Vonnegut’s father also worked for Vonnegut & Bohn and he created and designed the clock that sits at the corner of the old L.S. Ayres building and has become sort of a staple item in the city.”
Goller told me his favorite Vonnegut book is Cat’s Cradle, which happens to be mine as well. “It’s great dark humor that Vonnegut is known for in all his writing.”
The plot involves a fictional creator of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker, and his dastardly creation, Ice-9, a seed crystal of a form of water that remains solid at room temperature. By dropping just a little bit of Ice-9 in the ocean, you would freeze the world’s entire water supply and effectively end life on earth just as effectively as dropping 1,000 atomic bombs on all seven continents simultaneously.
Looking out at the rain while writing this, I can’t help but think of a report I heard this morning on NPR about Indiana having increasing amounts of rainfall due to global warming in the past decade, and how municipalities in Indiana are trying to cope.
I have to believe that would be no more committed person to fighting climate change than Vonnegut, if he were still alive.
But I also have to think that, on another level, you’d just see him shrug his shoulders and say, “So it goes.”