Writer’s One-Liners: Vonnegut

This post is part of my Writer’s One-Liners series of articles. The goal in these articles is to examine a single line from a writer’s work and discuss its message, its efficacy, and the impact of the line on my life and maybe the lives of others. Each line I feature has resonated with me in some way. I hope you find it informative and provocative and that it inspires you to seek out one-liners of your own.
Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. I have read every book he wrote and most of his short stories. I could write a hundred articles on his one-liners. He certainly doesn’t lack for great material. His writing has always struck a chord with me so it’s natural my first article in this series features one of his lines. Choosing which line of his to use was the difficult job for me.  Many of his one-liners come to mind when I think about writing that has had a particularly profound effect on me. This line is one of my favorites.

I was at a truck stop near Evanston, WY in July 2015, stopped for lunch and a rest. I was on a family vacation, driving halfway across the country with my wife and four children. Anyone who has taken a trip like this understands perfectly when I say we stopped often.

I stood in the convenience store portion of the establishment waiting for my kids to finish in the bathroom. I busied myself watching people. It’s what I do, but not in a creepy, stalker way.

There was a lot to see.  A man came out of the trucker lounge wearing a bathrobe.  Couples sat at the tables chatting and eating ice cream. Families came and went, grabbing their snacks and rifling through the Wyoming-themed knick-knacks on the shelves near the registers.

I eavesdropped on their conversations as I watched them.  Don’t judge me. You do it, too. I enjoyed listening to the kids discuss the various merits of the different items as they shopped. I remember having those types of conversations as a child with my brother. The kids wanted the plastic cowboys and Indians, the teens went for the t-shirts and hats, and the adults grabbed the bucking horse logo blankets. There was something for everyone.  No doubt the marketing plan took that into account.

Each of them was engaging in the typical vacation activity: the purchase of a souvenir. In theory, it represented a memento of the trip, a reminder of experiences shared on the journey through Wyoming with family and friends. In reality, it was a ten dollar injection-molded stereotypical Indian chief imported from China.

What did a plastic Indian chief have to do with a visit to Wyoming?  Sure, there are a couple First Nations reservations in the state, but the Native Americans today work at Wal-Mart and drive cars. They don’t wear war bonnets and carry tomahawks. Hell, they didn’t even do that very often when they were living free from white oppression two centuries ago. There is no romantic old west anymore. It wasn’t very romantic when it did exist. So why buy the item?

The disconnect I saw between what these people purchased as a cherished memento and what in reality was an imported plastic trinket made me think of Vonnegut’s line. Why did we, as Americans, buy these things, and why did Vonnegut include this in his book?

A psychologist would say that people often construct their identities via the items they purchase. That’s true enough.  We buy logo merchandise to identify ourselves as a fan of our favorite sports teams, we buy brand-name clothing to express our style and economic position, and we use material possessions to attract a mate and show our social status. This is nothing new. Buying souvenirs, however, make no sense with regard to constructing our identity, but as Vonnegut illustrates, it’s an almost universal American act.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, not a treatise on American pop psychology. Its underlying message is that war is unavoidable because people will always be people. It’s very fatalistic and depressing. So why would Vonnegut stick this jab at American consumerism in the middle of it? Consumerism is a choice, not a pre-ordained action, and outside of the geopolitical stage, it has very little to do with warmongering.

In the theme of the story, the line doesn’t fit. It does not show fatalism or determinism. In Billy Pilgrim’s narrative, however, it sheds some light on the experience all Americans share growing up, but that’s about it. In other words, our life is shaped by the shared experiences of our culture, but those experiences cannot change the fate of our lives. Maybe I am over-analyzing and he was actually trying to show that the inevitability of war is an outgrowth of our own mindless plodding through life.  I wish he were still alive so I could ask him.

Regardless of Vonnegut’s motive, the line’s net effect on me is best described as an admonition to think about why I do something before I do it. To this day I cannot bring myself to purchase a worthless souvenir. I don’t even buy my kids gifts when I travel for work. It seems too cliche to do it when I think of this line. I suppose that makes me a bad dad, but it’s better than the alternative. I don’t want to have a life that makes sense if it means buying crap in gift shops.

2 thoughts on “Writer’s One-Liners: Vonnegut”

  1. Hi. Vonnegut lover here, fellow #my500word participant and blogger.
    I like this post, and it puts me in line from my favorite contemporary American folk singer Greg Brown:
    “The culture exploded into knick-knacks and memories. Eagle and bear trinkets – I don’t think it’s… good.
    Oh man, what am I trying to say? It’s a mixed-up world, but I love it anyway, I love it.”
    Personally, I have sworn off collecting things.
    So I’m with you and Kurt and Greg.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dan. It’s gone beyond a simple ban on collecting things for me. I hate buying anything I don’t absolutely need and love. We (as a society) purchase way too much stuff. I try to ask myself if what I am buying will truly bring me joy or fulfill a true need, as opposed to a strong want, before I pull the trigger. I’m not always successful, but I’m making progress.

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