Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How Imaginative Are Vonnegut's Similes?

My high school English teacher once saw Kurt Vonnegut on the street near the author's home on the Upper East Side.

"Hey!" my teacher exclaimed. "You're Kurt Vonnegut!"

"Yes, yes I am," Vonnegut replied, before calmly continuing on his way.

That interaction endeared Vonnegut to me forever. I don't know if he was being rude or funny, but I always assumed the latter. Either way, I still find it hysterical, just like many of Vonnegut's turns of phrase.

One of my favorite aspects about Vonnegut's writing is his delightful use of similes. He rarely bothers with one you've seen before. I recently read the short story collection Look at the Birdie, and here are my favorite Vonnegut similes in that book:

"He was as American as cornflakes." (from "A Song for Selma")
Vonnegut describes the main character with this phrase. Not apple pie, cornflakes. Not even Corn Flakes, but cornflakes. On a related note, Vonnegut himself was as American as the Indiana of his upbringing.

Via bibliophilica.wordpress.com
"I was sure now that both the husband and the wife were crazy, and that, if there were any children, the children would be as crazy as bedbugs, too." (from "Shout About It From the Housetops")
The reader imagines a bunch of insects rapidly bashing into each other in an itchy, confined space.

"His neck was as stiff as a bent crowbar." (from "Hall of Mirrors")
Simple but effective.

"While Larry is soft as a hot fudge sundae, he is big and powerful-looking, like a college-bred lumberjack, if there is such a thing, or a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman." (from "Little Drops of Water")
Vonnegut drops three similes into one sentence. The resulting portrait of Larry: huge in size but ultimately harmless.

"He was small and scrawny, and his cheap clothes wrinkled and crackled like newspaper." (from "King and Queen of the Universe")
Here, Vonnegut skillfully combines a simile with the onomatopoetic "crackled" to produce a crisp image of the character's stiff clothing.

"Autumn winds, experimenting with the idea of a hard winter, made little twists of soot and paper, made the plastic propellers over the used car lot go frrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. " (from "Hall of Mirrors")
For this last bit of figurative language, I cheated. There are no similes here, but Vonnegut uses a combination of personification and onomatopoeia to create a vivid setting at the beginning of the story. The propellers' frrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr reminds me of the bird's famous Poo-too-weet? in Vonnegut's masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five.


Vonnegut has unfortunately departed this world, but he left us with thousands of funny, unique, thought-provoking images and phrases. I won't ever have the chance to run into him on the street, but his writing is just as wonderful as the "Yes, yes I am" he gifted to my teacher all those years ago.

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