Kurt and Bernard

A double biography of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut as they planted the seeds of the postwar era.

Illustration by Emily Flake

The title of The Brothers Vonnegut, Ginger Strand’s enjoyable double biography of Kurt and Bernard in the years following World War II, is meant to recall another tract of male siblinghood: The Brothers Karamazov. Strand, who wrote Killer on the Road (about highway murder) and Inventing Niagara (about the falls), explains that Jane Vonnegut, Kurt’s first wife, especially loved one line from the Russian novel. Jane would cry “It’s all an ocean!” when she “was struck by how everything was interconnected,” Strand reports. Mrs. Vonnegut (and Dostoyevsky) meant that the constituent parts of the world ceaselessly flow and blend together.* Tiny stimuli are magnified into concussive effects, according to unpredictable laws. In Strand’s hands, this description becomes a thesis statement not just for scientific phenomena—Bernard would spend much of his career trying to manipulate the weather—but for life.

The Brothers Vonnegut, with its perfect-storm-of-concepts subtitle “Science and Fiction in the House of Magic,” focuses on Bernard and Kurt Vonnegut during the late ’40s and ’50s, when both were involved in the glittering ascent of General Electric during the postwar prosperity boom. Bernard, an MIT graduate and model elder son, researches at the company’s prestigious science lab. Kurt, having survived the Western Front (where he saw the firebombing of Dresden firsthand), takes a job as a PR flack, issuing zingy press releases about GE’s latest innovations.

As Bernie vaults to egghead stardom, propelled in part by reports from his brother’s office, Kurt chafes at the role of the blandly compliant company man. He pens subversive fiction, addressing his misgivings about progress, technocracy, and the military industrial complex in short stories no one seems to want to read. (One delightful detail Strand supplies about Kurt’s early career is that, as the magazine rejections piled up, Jane lit three candles in miniature wine bottles: Keep. On. Trying.) Meanwhile, Bernie’s breakthroughs—he discovers that he can induce rain by seeding clouds with dry ice and silver iodide—spark the government’s interest. His colleagues are fond of the statistic that one hurricane contains hundreds of times more energy than an atomic bomb. Will weather become the United States’ newest super-weapon?

Strand wants to show that the elder Vonnegut faced a set of moral anxieties that afflicted the culture at large—and that played out, specifically, in the writing of Bernard’s kid brother. She’s right that Kurt Vonnegut explored a paranoid country’s ambivalence around science and progress in the red dawn of McCarthyism. Where she’s less successful is in convincing us that Bernie himself felt as tortured as Kurt wished him to be. The book favors unsubstantiated statements: “Bernie didn’t want to support the rest of his life making someone’s dreams of undersea warfare come true,” “He would rather see [his rain-creating project] used to save lives.” These assertions, though they enhance the dramatic shape of the book, arrive without compelling evidence. Just because Bernard believed his vortex whistle would make a good children’s toy doesn’t mean he objected to its use by the military.

Author Ginger Strand.
Ginger Strand.

Photo by Orianna Riley

The effort to transform Bernie into a fascinatingly conflicted hero lures Strand away from the more interesting Vonnegut brother. Meanwhile, there are startling lacunae: Nowhere is it mentioned that the Vonneguts’ mother committed suicide—on Mother’s Day—when Kurt was 21, or that Kurt, for all his pacifism, invested in Dow Chemical, maker of napalm. Strand does draw out a suggestive battle between paperclip-and-string “Victorian science”—the kind that throws chemicals at clouds to see what happens—and specialized, formula-bound “Big Science.” “He who would master nature must obey her laws,” holds one of Bernie’s capital-S rivals, hubristically assuming that such laws are knowable. The elder Vonnegut is less of an Icarus; he cares about results, not penetrating mysteries. 

More compelling than Bernard himself is the corporation he works for, a delicately sinister titan of progress with both commercial and military interests. When Vonnegut’s weather-craft raises liability issues, GE’s leaders enter a partnership with the government: The U.S. will assume control over the experiments in exchange for rights to the results. (As Strand memorably puts it, “GE was insulated from liability concerns by a solid wall of military brass.”) Later, the company’s growing role in right-wing politics is linked to “an underemployed actor” hired as a “public relations spokesman,” after being “purged of his previous liberal convictions and indoctrinated in the virtues of unfettered markets”: Ronald Reagan.

Some of these connections are immensely satisfying. (I especially loved the way Strand tied the eventual discrediting of the weather experimenters to America’s dangerous disdain for climate science.) Others seem forced. Much is made, for instance, of the fact that Kurt scrawled his first stories on the backs of army meteorological reports—such symmetry has a kind of allure, but what does it mean other than that Kurt didn’t buy his own paper? Likewise, after a juicy section on the jumpy chronologies in Slaughterhouse-Five, Strand writes that researchers at the Weather Bureau hoped “their equations could travel back through time” in order to accurately predict a past rainstorm. The phrasing means to conjure the previous discussion of leapfrogging pasts and futures, but why dragoon that parallel? Not everything needs to be an ocean.

Whenever Strand mines her project’s built-in natural resource—Kurt Vonnegut’s writing—her book sings with the younger brother’s gift for frank and snappy expression. (“The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible,” Vonnegut once said, responding to criticism that he was too “simple” and “direct.”) Strand knows how to mount a quote with just the right details. “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” she writes, plucking a gem from Cat’s Cradle to irradiate her theme: how the (fruitless, in some ways) study of atmospheric phenomena led to the development of chaos theory.

Strand is correct about the one big thing: Kurt’s relationship with Bernie did work its way into his fiction. Vonnegut’s first published story, “The Barnhouse Effect,” concerns a noble scientist who realizes that his telepathic abilities might spell destruction for the entire planet. (In college, Bernie’s friends called him Barney.) Barnhouse uses mind control to thwart the global powers and enforce peace. At the other end of the spectrum is an antihero, Dr. Bernard Groszinger, who in a later story stumbles on an atmospheric layer teeming with the voices of the dead. A far cry from virtuous Barnhouse, Groszinger reluctantly helps the government conceal his discovery so that citizens won’t interfere with a military operation taking place in the so-called “thanasphere.” It’s hard not to hear the sibling rivalry in one of the last lines. “You people read too many comic books,” Groszinger tells reporters, apparently dismissing a genre viewed, in its luridness and fancy, not that differently from the work of the younger Vonnegut. Of course, in this case the comic books tell the truth. Science and fiction can occasionally merge like aquatic currents, and the effect can look like magic.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2015: This article originially misidentified Tolstoy as the author of The Brothers Karamazov. It was written by Dostoyevsky. (Return.) 

The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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