Kilgore Trout as Kurt Vonnegut's Literary Alter Ego
“Trout doesn’t really exist. He has been my alter ego
in several of my other novels” (Vonnegut, xv). These are the words of the author Kurt Vonnegut
in his introduction of his most recent novel, Timequake
, his latest work to feature the character of Kilgore Trout
, a gifted writer
who is comparable in many ways to his creator. Says Vonnegut, “for better of worse, I have always rigged my stories so as to include myself” (Vonnegut, Between
, xv). For the most part, these inclusions have been in the form of Kilgore Trout.
Trout, who has appeared in Vonnegut’s novels God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
, Slaughterhouse Five
, Breakfast of Champions
, Hocus Pocus
, and Timequake
, is for the most part a chronically under-appreciated science fiction
writer of some 117 novels and 2.000 short stories (Vonnegut, Breakfast
, 20). The details of his life fluctuate endlessly, according to the needs of the novel. In Timequake
, he is an only child whose father, a college professor and researcher of ornithological methods of evolution other
than Natural Selection
(185), had murdered his mother when Kilgore was twelve (57). In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
, he is a Jesus
figure (185). In Jailbird
he is Dr. Robert Fender, serving a life-sentence in prison for treason
, and publishing fiction under pen names such as Frank X. Barlow and Kilgore Trout (99, 243). In Breakfast of Champions
, he has been married three times, but currently lives alone with a parakeet named Bill (18). In Galapagos
he has had a wife, who left him, and an estranged son Leon (256), a deserter from the United States Marines
in the Vietnam War
who died in an accident while working as a wielder in a Swedish shipyard. Sometimes, as in Breakfast of Champions
, he rises to prominence before his end- in the former as a pioneer in the field of mental health
, advancing his ideas disguised as science fiction (13-14) and winning a Nobel prize for Medicine (25) and, in the latter, as a celebrated hero (196-197). He dies many times over (Timequake
However, Trout is consistent in that his tremendous body of work is for the most part unknown to the general masses. This is due to the fact that Trout’s ill-chosen publisher, World Classics Library, is a firm specializing in pornographic
novels and magazines, ensuring that his work is distributed only to stores that carry primarily this genre. Trout’s work, with one exception (The Son of Jimmy Valentine
), contains no explicitly erotic content. However, without Trout’s permission or knowledge, World Classics Library puts lurid covers on his novels and uses his short stories as filler in pornographic magazines, even changing his titles, so that, for instance, “Pan-Galactic Straw-Boss
” becomes “Mouth Crazy” (Huber). In 1975, Trout stops submitting his works for publication altogether, opting instead to destroy them as fast as he can write them (Vonnegut, Timequake
In order to survive, Trout works as a menial laborer
- an installer of aluminum combination storm widows and screens, for instance (Vonnegut, Breakfast
, 20), or a circulation man for the Ilium Gazette
, “bullying and flattering and cheating” newspaper delivery boy
, 158). In Timequake
(before his rise to fame), he is homeless
, sleeping at a homeless shelter in the former Museum of the American Indian
, “way-the-hell-and-gone up on West 155th Street” in Manhattan (52-53).
While Trout starts at a far more extreme low and rises to a more extreme high, his ascent to fame
mirrors that of Vonnegut. When Vonnegut began publishing works, respectable publishers did accept them, but they were printed as paperback originals, “the form that pulp fiction
done by hack writers often takes” (Mustazza, xxii). Science fiction was considered to be “trash
” (Vit). He was virtually ignored by critics at the beginning of his writing career. It wasn’t until the mid- 1960’s
that he began to take his place in the literary world (Mustazza, xxii). However, the resemblance between Vonnegut and Trout, creator and creation, becomes much clearer when the actual work of both is examined.
When Vonnegut was 22, his mother, Edith Leiber Vonnegut
, committed suicide
. Then he was 23, while a battalion scout with the 106th Infantry Division
, he was captured by the Nazi
army during the Battle of the Bulge
. A prisoner of war
in Germany in 1945, he witnessed the Allied bombing of Dresden
, which killed 135,000 people. In 1958, his elder sister Alice Vonnegut Adams
died of cancer
within 24 hours of the death of her husband John Adams
, who had been riding in a train that drove off of an open drawbridge. In the early 1970’s Vonnegut suffered a depression
. In 1985 he attempted suicide by a combination of sleeping pills
. In between, he married twice, raised seven children (three his own from his first marriage, one his own from his second, and three his adopted nephews), and published three collections of short stories, thirteen novels, six dramatic works, and five collections of essays and miscellany (Huber).
As such, it is not surprising that Vonnegut’s works, while flippant, are rarely cheerful. According to James Lundquist, he constantly utilizes cosmic irony, “the laughable prospect of man’s attempts to give order to the disorder of the universe through philosophies, theologies, or even scientific systems” (17-18), in addressing such existensial dilemmas as the unreality of time, the problem of free will, the nature of a pluralistic universe, and man’s ability to live with his own allusions (16). Indeed, as a result of his primary concern with issues and ideas, Vonnegut has often been accused of not creating life-like characters (Levitas). He admits of himself that he creates only caricatures (Timequake
, 72). The same can be said of Kilgore Trout:
“In my entire career as a writer”, said Trout…“I created only one living, breathing, three-dimensional character. I did it with my ding-dong in a birth canal.” He was referring to his son Leon, a deserter from the United States Marines in time of war, subsequently decapitated in a Swedish shipyard.
“If I’d wasted my time creating characters,” Trout said, “I would have never gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamamie ideas and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel like something the cat drug in” (72).
But while neither the work of Trout or Vonnegut may fit the conventional definition of “good” literature
because of their lack of “real” characters, at the same time it is free to examine ideas that “real” people do not usually spend much time thinking about.
As a primary example, “Trout’s favorite formula was to describe a perfectly hideous society
, not unlike his own, and then toward the end, to suggest ways in which it can be improved” (Vonnegut, God
, 20). This is the formula that he follows for such stories as “The Gospel from Outer Space
”, about a visitor from outer space
who made a serious study of Christianity
, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel
He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
But the Gospels actually taught this:
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought…
Oh boy—the sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And then that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.
The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connection than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections! (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse, 103-105)
Vonnegut,too, has radical changes in mind for the system under which we live, specifically, the America
n government, in the form of four amendments to the Constitution
Article XXVIII: Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomes and cared for until maturity.
Article XXIX: Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage (Timequake, 176).
Article XXX: Every person, upon reaching a statutory age of puberty, shall be declared an adult in a solemn public ritual, during which he or she must welcome his or her new responsibilities to the community, and their attendant dignities.
Article XXXI: Every effort shall be made to make every person feel that he or she will be sorely missed when he or she is gone (202).
Indeed the entirety of his novel Slapstick
concerns an American President
’s attempt to cure loneliness
by organizing the American people
into new extended families
Vonnegut and Trout also both utilize a setting that fits better than anything other into the above-mentioned category of “cosmic irony”: that of people on display. There is nothing the people can do to improve or worsen their situation, and yet the usually persist in trying. In fact, they are often unaware that their “reality
” is not real. For instance, in Trout’s story “The Big Board
,” an Earthling
man and woman are kidnapped
and put on display
in a zoo
. The aliens provide the couple with a big board supposedly showing stock market
quotations and commodity
prices along one wall of their habitat
, a news ticker
, and a telephone
that is supposedly connected to a brokerage
. They tell their captives that they have invested a million dollars
for them back on Earth, and that it is up to the captives to manage it so that they will be fabulously wealthy when they are returned to Earth. The purpose of all this is to get the pair to perform
for the crowds at the zoo- “to make them jump up and down and cheer
, or gloat
, or sulk
, or tear their hair, to be scared shitless
or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers’ arms
Vonnegut puts his own characters, Billy Pilgrim
and Montana Wildhack
, in a nearly identical situation in Slaughterhouse Five
. They are kidnapped from Earth by the Tralfamador
ians and are put on display in a zoo. Not only that, but the novel emphasizes the Earthlings’ limitations by including the fact that their captors are able to see all moments of time at once
, compared to the strictly restricted, linear existence
of the captives. The guide at the zoo tries to explain this type of vision to the spectator
The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down at the canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and wielded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
...He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way one could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to flatcar. All…he…could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped- went uphill, downhill, around curves, along staightaways. Whatever…he…saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life” (125-127).
In addition to the correlation in these two authors’ choice of theme
, according to Stephanie E. Bonner
, similarities between Vonnegut and Trout appear in the storylines of their writings as well. Several stories attributed to Kilgore Trout appear elsewhere written by Vonnegeut himself. For instance: the Trout story “2BOR2B
”, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
, depicts a world in which almost all work is done by machine
s, and people can only get work if they have several Ph.D.’s (Vonnegut, 20-21). This world is remarkably similar to the one in which Vonnegut sets his first novel, Player Piano
- a 1952
America where almost everything is done by machine, which are themselves “no longer controlled by men but by other machines” (Broer, 18). In addition, the people in “2BOR2B” are so hopeless
, and their world is so overpopulated
, that the government has set up “a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlor
at every major intersection, right next door to the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s
” (Vonnegut, 20). The visitors to the Suicide Parlor die painless
ly and patriotic
ally, and even get a free last meal
at the Howard Johnson’s next door (21). Vonnegut’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House” works almost exactly the same way, opening in an Ethical Suicide Parlor almost identical to the ones described in “2BOR2B”, right down to the purple roof and the Howard Johnson’ next door (Welcome
In a final psychological twist
, Kilgore Trout twice meets his creator
and his other half, Kurt Vonnegut. At the end of Breakfast of Champions
, Vonnegut sets Trout, cowering
by the omnipotence
of his author
, free (293-294). In Timequake, Vonnegut’s rumored last novel, he writes Trout a happy
last scene. He has him staying at the Writer’s Retreat at Xanadu
, a beachfront resort
in severe contrast to “way-the-hell-and-gone up on West 155th Street” in Manhattan:
He was so happy! He was so popular! He was all dolled up in the tuxedo and boiled shirt and crimson cummerbund and tie…I (Vonnegut) stood behind him in his suite in order to tie the tie for him, just as my big brother had done for me before I myself could tie a bow tie.
There on the beach, whatever Trout said produced laughter and applause. He couldn’t believe it! He said the pyramids and Stonehenge were built in a time of very low gravity, when boulders could be tossed around like sofa pillows, and people loved it…
“If this isn’t nice, what is?” he exclaimed to us all (240-241).
- Bonner, Stephanie E. “Kilgore Trout: Kurt Vonnegut’s Alter Ego”. http:www.geocities.com/Hollywood/4953/trout.html
- Broer, Lawrence R. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1989.
- Huber, Chris. “The Vonnegut Web”. http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/
- Levitas, Mitchel. “A Slight Case of Candor”. The New York Times, 08/19/68
- Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
- Mustazza, Leonard. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Vit, Marek. “Kilgore Trout Sci-Fi Collection”. http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/4953/trout.html
- Vonnegut, Kurt.
- - God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. New York: Dell Publishing
- Co., 1965
- - Player Piano. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966
- - Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1969
- - Between Time and Timbuktu. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1972
- - Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973
- - Slapstick. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1976
- - Jailbird New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1979
- - Galapagos: A Novel New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1985
- - Hocus Pocus New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1990
- - Timequake New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998