A fresh appraisal of Kurt Vonnegut before the release of his second posthumous work
Wed, Sep 19, 2012 (4:56 p.m.)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater introduced me to irony in seventh grade, and over the next two years I read all the Kurt Vonnegut I could, through Slaughterhouse-Five.
Long tending this preteen crush, I’ve continued buying and reading everything Vonnegut. On October 9 comes a second posthumous volume, We Are What We Pretend to Be: The First and Last Works (Vanguard Press). It comprises an early unpublished story and the unfinished novel he was working on at the time of his death in 2007, with an introduction by daughter Nanette. Armageddon in Retrospect (Berkeley/Penguin, 2008) was a mix of varied quality, and I expect that again, particularly from the unfinished novel. (I am ready to support a moratorium on those.)
My first newly published Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions (Delacorte, 1973), and it soured me some on him. The dry narrative voice Vonnegut had perfected in the ’60s had gone raspy. Vonnegut admitted in Slaughterhouse-Five that his topic daunted him, so he dressed it in sci-fi scenery and wrote with a take-it-or-leave-it air, as if conceding inadequacy again. “So it goes”—remember? But Breakfast of Champions seemed deliberately slack and shallow, and to some extent every novel since has had more or less of Vonnegut Grump—removed, misanthropic, a little so-sue-me-already.
I tried to encourage reading among my Feature Writing students last spring by giving away books. Recently, the student who’d claimed Slaughterhouse-Five came up to me in the hall to say she’d read it over the summer. I believe “strange” was her nutshell review.
The book is strange. The film regularized that strangeness by depicting it. Director George Roy Hill cleverly exploited the cinematic possibilities of Billy Pilgrim’s time travel, making it plausible as daydreaming. But some of the magic of the book is in its matter-of-fact rendering of the meek and affectless Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.
Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s one masterwork. My favorite of the Vonnegut novels published in my adulthood is Bluebeard, not only because of its art-world plot, but also because a sense of his mistakes and inadequacies inflected narrator Rabo Karabekian’s voice.
Irony is both torment and its relief to a writer, and voice navigates that paradox. Vonnegut’s narrative voice often was just Vonnegut grafted onto a character’s backstory. But in most of his work that familiar voice kept trying to tell the world to be nice, knowing it never will. Nothing strange about that.