Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was an American writer probably most famous for Slaughterhouse-Five, now considered something of a science-fiction classic. This little novella, however, is a collection of short interview type segments which Vonnegut first read out on WNYC, which is apparently a public radio thing in New York (we’re not Americans, we don’t know this stuff).
It only first appeared in book form back in 1999 and was a play on a book of Vonnegut’s with a similar title. In God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian we have the writer pretend he’s hired the real-life Jack Kevorkian (a pathologist and right-to-die champion who died in 2011) to give him near death experiences. The results he chronicles in this quirky little number which, really, didn’t turn out to be quite as controversial as you might expect.
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
For the radio show, which was called Reports of the Afterlife, Vonnegut had a 90 second slot to reel off whatever he’d created. Death had been close to home for him – as a young man, he’d fought in World War II and been captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Stuck at Dresden by the Nazis, he survived an Allied air bombing by hiding in a meat locker.
He developed a morbid fascination with life and death after that, but his comical timing ensured his work was never overly depressing or unnerving. Indeed, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian offers a slight, but interesting and funny, account of experiences with death. His use of black humour has been studied quite extensively by scholars, in fact, and many folks have been drawn to the sardonic nature of his writing.
There’s a lot of dark humour and introspective whimsy on the go from the start. Ultimately, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is crammed with 30 unusual interviews. He takes the “blue tunnel to the pearly gates” and gets to meet William Shakespeare (who he fails to get on with), the socialist Eugene Victor Debs, and Adolf Hitler. They’re [provocative musings, if anything, but they’re entertaining and one of the most warped considerations on life after death we’ve ever come across.
Croatian Canadian writer Josip Novakovich had this to say: “The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.” That’s Mozart, if you were wondering, one of the most flamboyant geniuses the world has ever seen! So there’s a lot of praise for the man and, with books like this, you can see why.
A tad misanthropic, as you can see in the clip above, he was also controversial. Although anti-war, he considered them an inevitability due to the nature of some humans. In 1987, he said: “My own feeling is that civilization ended in World War I, and we’re still trying to recover from that”. He also had a fascination with nuclear arms and mentioned them in most of his work. Erm… we have a habit of doing that, too. What gives?!
Unsurprisingly, Vonnegut was an atheist and humanist, but considered himself a “Christ-loving atheist” as he believed people could find solace in the comfort of religion (far removed from other modern writers, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great). As with this short book, religion features heavily and the existence of an afterlife is confirmed! If in fictional form.
His political views were just as complicated, and it’s perhaps best to describe him as a centrist. However, if you’re after some radical science-fiction ideas from a wildly expressive mind, then you’ll do no wrong with trying out some of his work.