The Curmudgeon


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

That's another one gone. I think Slaughterhouse-Five was the first Vonnegut I read; I was a teenager at the time, and like most teenagers somewhat puritanical, and even less tolerant of post-modern hi-jinks than I am now. I took a very dim view of Vonnegut's writing a long introduction to his novel and calling it "Chapter One", and I must have been almost as unhappy with the occasions in later chapters where the narrator declares "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book", and the famous "So it goes". After I read a few of his other books, I was also disturbed by the reappearance of characters like Eliot Rosewater and Howard W Campbell Junior in Slaughterhouse-Five. The terms postmodernism and intertextuality had not yet obtruded themselves upon my consciousness, so I think the problem may have been that I expected the author to do all the thinking and imagining and suchlike hard work, and this business of recycling characters from other books made me suspect that Vonnegut wasn't trying quite as hard as I deserved.

Nevertheless, there must have been something to the fellow, for I kept on reading him: his first book, Player Piano, which is more or less a conventional science-fiction dystopia; Cat's Cradle, also more or less science-fiction but rather less conventional; The Sirens of Titan, an epic work whose action takes place on Earth, Mars, Mercury and a moon of Saturn, and which includes such phenomena as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum which swallows up a man and his dog and spreads them out across time and space, and the "hypnotic anarchy" which is the government of the planet Tralfamadore. Vonnegut had a superb talent for the concrete; the workings of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum are explained via a children's schoolbook, while the Tralfamadorean Salo explains his planet's government as being like a cloud to which everyone has contributed a puff of mist, and then the cloud is made to do all the heavy thinking. When I read The Sirens of Titan I knew, as with Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, that here was no ordinary, unambitious science-fiction writer. So Vonnegut stopped writing science-fiction.

At first this did not affect me as badly as it might, since Mother Night, the morally convoluted confessions of American traitor, Nazi propagandist and Allied agent Howard W Campbell Junior, was one of his best-ever books and remains my personal favourite of all his works; and God Bless You Mr Rosewater was very enjoyable too. However, Breakfast of Champions, featuring the terminally underappreciated pulp novelist Kilgore Trout and a lot of drawings in Magic Marker, failed to engage the enthusiasm of a teenager who still thought that fiction should have a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order, and above all should be able to make up its mind whether it was serious or not. Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard likewise escaped my enthusiasm by varying margins; but Galápagos, which treats of the evolution of the human race into a harmless, seal-like creature with far less brain-power and consequently fewer troubles, appealed despite its cerebrally incorrect premise. I never did get around to Hocus Pocus or Timequake, but I did re-read Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as the books I'd liked better, and found that they improved with better acquaintance.

And somewhere in there I also read some of Vonnegut's short stories, and his superb, sensitive and scrupulously fair-minded essay about Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In fact, there is a section about Céline in Slaughterhouse-Five, which is undoubtedly the first I knew of him. Between his admiration of the French writer's relentless honesty and disgust at his anti-semitic ravings, Vonnegut claimed that writing about Céline was the only thing that gave him a headache.

Although Vonnegut had retired from novelising (and a few novels before the end had terminated the "By the same author" list with the words "Enough! Enough!"), the theft of the 2000 election provoked him into applying his particular brand of sardonic rumination to the antics of the Bush gang, than whom few have been more worthy of the effort of outliving. Then again, outliving one lot of thugs means merely that one lives to witness the ascent of the next lot; or, as Vonnegut himself observes in Slaughterhouse-Five, "if wars didn't keep on coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death".


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