In a dark year of my life, while a House Officer (or medical 'Intern' in the US nomenclature), I went fast and deep into the works of Kurt Vonnegut - and experienced their brilliance and their despair.
I was introduced by the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray in the autumn of 1982, when I first met him in Glasgow - he either quoted from memory or read aloud something deeply amusing from Breakfast of Champions, and lent me a copy of Slaughterhouse Five. I rapidly went on to read everything by Vonnegut written up to the middle 1970s. It made my life A Lot worse.
(...After the mid 70s publication dates, I found the work unreadable - a kind a embarrassing, contrived self-parody. Interestingly, I believe this happened because Vonnegut so insightfully explained-himself, in the non-fiction collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons. Having explained himself, made his methods conscious and explicit in lectures and essays; he could no longer do them spontaneously and naturally - and it destroyed his genius. This is what Glenn Gould called the 'centipedal' problem in relation to piano technique - that when the centipede tried to explain how it was he could manage to coordinate so many legs, he then found he could no longer do it: this was why Gould refused to teach pupils.)
I think Vonnegut's best work is Cat's Cradle - which is written with extraordinary wit and deftness, and is packed with very clever ideas. But it is deeply subversive and despair-inducing, exactly because it gets so deeply and sympathetically into the religious impulse, the impulse to perceive and know life as meaningful and purposive... which it then alternately mocks and pities as false: a self-gratifying and socially-beneficial delusion.
This is the Vonnegut mood: surface wit, powerful depth charge jokes; empathic explanation and description - then the resigned shrug that the whole thing is a trick; either a trick we play on ourselves to keep ourselves going, or a trick played on us by rulers who are manipulating us for their own benefit.
Vonnegut is therefore an extreme example of the nineteen-sixties counter-cultural ideology that has since grown and taken-over as the dominant mainstream. He is both a hedonist (because nothing else matters) and a pathological altruist (especially in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater).
Vonnegut combines that paralysing pacifist pity with shallow, slavish and partisan Leftism, in the way so familiar from nearly all Western ruling elites. The pity makes them feel superior, their careerist hatred of the less-extremely-Left is what daily-motivates them.
My point is that Vonnegut really was a genius - albeit a minor genius, but undoubtedly - and consequently the harm he did (especially via Slaughterhouse Five, in context of the Vietnam War protest movement) was massively amplified in a world where the social ethos so exactly matched his own.
Vonnegut and the late sixties-early seventies shared a dangerous resonant frequency - much as he did with my own pervasive misery, self-righteousness and failure of courage.