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Review Essay: Kurt Vonnegut among His Admirers

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Gregory D. Summer, Unstuck in Time: A Journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels (Seven Stories Press, 2011).

Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life  (Henry Holt and Company, 2011).

Tom McCartan, Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (Melville House, 2011).

 

“What are people for?” a character asks in Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), and Vonnegut toyed with the question, or variations of it, in thirteen additional novels and numerous short stories, articles, essays, interviews and speeches. Yet books about Vonnegut and his work since his death in 2007, especially ones aiming to elucidate the writing via his biography, might prompt exasperated readers to ponder other questions, like: “What are these books for?” And: “What do their authors think books are for?”

Gregory D. Sumner hints at what he thinks he’s up to in Unstuck in Time when he says a character’s act is “both a prayer and a form of therapy.” In essence, according to Sumner, so is fiction. Vonnegut, then, wrote as a means to cope with life’s hardships, and each fictional character derives from an actual person, usually Vonnegut himself. Sumner not only searches for real-world equivalents for characters; he also puts them on the couch, offering cloying therapeutic assessments of the various authorial stand-ins and, thus, of Vonnegut himself. Pseudo-meaningful formulations such as “like the author” and “like the author’s mother” consistently accompany descriptions of characters throughout Unstuck in Time. Sumner traces most of the issues he identifies back to survivor’s guilt stemming from both the suicide of Vonnegut’s mother and the novelist’s wartime experiences. A character’s efforts “to repair the damage caused by his clumsy assertions of manhood may well be the author’s expression of his own helpless desire to heal his mother, to reconnect and make her whole again,” Sumner says. Regarding a scene from Sirens of Titan (1959), he wonders, “Did the author experience this kind of disorientation on his return from Europe in the summer of 1945?” Sumner clearly presumes that he did. Sumner claims that in one novel “trauma is transmuted into hope and renewal”; he praises another one as “a major step in the author’s rapprochement with the past.” As for his own objective for discussing Vonnegut in “this companion to his life and books,” Sumner aspires to praise, to encourage the healing process and to cheerlead. It’s biographical criticism in an earnestly admiring mode.

The shaky premise of such an approach is that to understand and appreciate literature one must turn, not to the work, but to the writer. With a full-fledged biography, the aim is indeed to understand the individual, but in And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields constructs another funhouse hall of mirrors in which the books reflect the author’s life and the author’s life is reflected in the books and the reader exits without deeper knowledge of neither – but perhaps with a sense that intimate revelations about an author’s real-life story translate directly into inside information about literary imagination. The operating assumption seems to be that details about one thing (an author’s life) automatically augment knowledge of something else (an author’s work).

Like Sumner, Shields indulges in pat psychoanalysis, reducing characters to symptoms of their creator’s mental health. Regarding Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in which Billy Pilgrim (born, like Vonnegut, in 1922) becomes “unstuck in time” and bounces among being a prisoner of war in Dresden, a human zoo animal in outer space and an optometrist in late-1960s America, Shields surmises: “Perhaps the root of Vonnegut’s … time-disordered fables lies in a psychological condition not understood until later: post-traumatic stress disorder.” Sumner invokes the same malady in connection with Hocus Pocus (1990), determining of narrator Eugene Debs Hartke: “As with all of Vonnegut’s protagonists, Gene’s guilt … draws in some measure from the author’s own sense of having failed the women in his life, beginning with his mother. In marriage his faithlessness took the form of emotional withdrawal, a remoteness typical of soldiers who suffered from PTSD.” Yet Shields outdoes Sumner in sheer psychobabble balderdash with passages like this one, in which he refers to Billy Pilgrim’s interludes on an imaginary planet with “a twenty-year-old pornographic movie starlet named Montana Wildhack,” with whom captors permit Pilgrim to mate unobserved:

This pretend Eden-like paradise on Tralfamadore where there is love, privacy for sex, and desire for it resolves Kurt’s tie to his mother, too. The dead end of pleasing his histrionic mommy, the artiste manqué, by living and writing on the Cape has ended. Montana is to Billy what Loree [Rackstraw, with whom Vonnegut began having an affair when he was writer-in-residence in the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in the mid-1960s] was to Kurt when he as “adrift”; life energy restarts in both the author and his protagonist through the act of physical love, a strongly sexual relationship with a love who will never leave. When Montana gives birth to a child, the parallel with Kurt successfully taking up Slaughterhouse-Five again in Iowa is complete. Procreation and artistic successful creation are one.

Only those who find that sort of thing useful, or plausible, or palatable, will make it through And So It Goes without cringing. By the way, for what it’s worth, Vonnegut didn’t finish his best-known book for several more years after first “sleeping with his Muse in Iowa City.”

Sumner and Shields evince absolutely no hesitation identifying which characters serve as Vonnegut’s mouthpieces. In Vonnegut’s third novel, Mother Night (1961), Howard Campbell’s “aversion to nationalism,” Sumner says, is “an expression of the author’s leaning.” Two characters in Bluebeard (1987), he confidently states, “represent different aspects of Vonnegut, the damaged veteran.” When Shields articulates the “fairly clear” moral of 1963’s Cat’s Cradle (“no one has the right or the competence to hold the key to ending the world”), he says the narrator, Jonah, “speaks for Vonnegut.” Both Sumner and Shields identify Kilgore Trout, who shows up in several novels, as Vonnegut’s “alter ego.”

Despite their certainty about who speaks for Vonnegut, Sumner and Shields fumble when it comes to what he had to say on one major subject. Vonnegut plainly calls himself an atheist in multiple books and in several interviews, including some gathered by editor Tom McCartan in Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations. Studying anthropology, he says in a 1977 Paris Review interview that both Shields and Sumner cite as a source, “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of fathers anyway.” He continues: “Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Organized religion get satirized, if sometimes gently, in several novels, including Cat’s Cradle, in which Vonnegut coins the term foma for comforting untruths and, since all religions are made up any way, he depicts people start practicing a harmless one engineered to encourage compassion rather than the usual brutality. As if trying to claim Vonnegut for Christianity, Sumner, a professor of history at a Catholic university, never identifies Vonnegut as an atheist; the word never appears in Unstuck in Time. He acknowledges that Vonnegut had been “encouraged to be skeptical of received truths” and regarded religions as fabrications, but he spotlights Vonnegut’s more friendly remarks on religion, like his claim that psychiatric patients should join churches (for companionship) and his advocacy of what could be taken as Christian virtues, like kindness and self-sacrifice. In the months prior to his death (as multiple interviews in McCartan’s book show), Vonnegut proudly referred to his status as honorary president of the American Humanist Association, an organization committed to the idea that people can be good without belief in any god, but Sumner instead attempts to align Vonnegut’s outlook with the Bible, referring to Vonnegut’s supposed “New Testament humanism,” asserting (without providing evidence) that Vonnegut “found inspiration in the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife,” and repeatedly mentioning Vonnegut’s stated admiration for the Sermon on the Mount.

Sumner ignores Vonnegut’s explanation that humanists were influenced by science, not the Old Testament, and his fondness for repeating, in connection with the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a remark made by his great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut: “If what he said was good, and it was marvelous, what did it matter if he was god or not?” Sumner doesn’t say Vonnegut believed the Sermon on the Mount came directly from god, but he nonetheless misrepresents Vonnegut’s views by refusing to call them by their actual name and by giving greater weight to his less critical comments on religion. Shields is somewhat better, but still a bit fuzzy, on this front. At some places in And So It Goes he accurately calls Vonnegut an atheist and a descendent of freethinkers, but in others he calls him an agnostic and even a Unitarian. He recognizes that Vonnegut didn’t find everything religious “offensive” and points out that “he wrote respectfully about Jesus.” Ultimately, the very best thing a religion could be, in Vonnegut’s opinion, was a benign lie that consoled communities, but neither Shields nor Sumner seems willing to state clearly what Vonnegut often did.

Certainly Vonnegut did write, and talk, a great deal about himself. “Unlike most writers, he was an extrovert, who enjoyed having people around, attending social events, and being interviewed,” according to Shields. “Speaking was a big part of my business,” Vonnegut remarked in an interview a year before his death. The half dozen interviews comprising The Last Interview illustrate how much he relied on the same material in talks over his long career. In the Paris Review conversation published thirty years before the final one from which the volume takes its name, Vonnegut describes how he became the sole person to benefit from the firebombing of Dresden, which he made use of in a best-selling novel composed decades after he survived the event and which killed, he says, 135,000 people. “I got three dollars for every person killed,” he calculates. He deploys the same bit again three years later in another interview selected by McCartan. (By then, his take per corpse had increased by one dollar.) Both times he mentions that he’d already included it in an introduction to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. When he used the line again in a 1983 conversation chronicled in Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno (1986), he’d refined it by saying sales of the novel netted him “several” dollars for each person killed. Even more frequently, he relays a comment his long-time friend Bernard O’Hare made after World War II. Vonnegut asked his fellow former POW what he’d learned from his military experience, and O’Hare replied, “I’ll never believe my government again.” (Vonnegut earlier recounted the comment in a Playboy interview reprinted in his 1974 nonfiction collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons but not included in The Last Interview.) Vonnegut also frequently mentions his scientist brother, another Bernard, who, Vonnegut says, discovered that “silver iodide will sometimes make it rain or snow.” I could list several other examples from McCartan’s slim book.

There’s nothing unusual or objectionable about a raconteur drawing on his rehearsed repertoire, of course, but there is something wrong with such a repetitive compilation: it’s unnecessary. The Paris Review interview, by far the longest selection in The Last Interview (and readily available online as well as in Vonnegut’s 1981 “autobiographical collage” Palm Sunday), contains all of Vonnegut’s main points about writing and war and religion and loneliness, the ones he returned to over and over. Besides, anyone wanting full immersion in Vonnegut’s spiel could turn to Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (University Press of Mississippi, 1988), edited by William Rodney Allen, which contains the Paris Review interview, another from The Nation also picked by McCartan, and twenty more besides. The titular last interview with Heather Augustyn for In These Times, also available online, where it originally appeared, amounts to just over three pages of McCartan’s redundant assemblage.

By structuring Unstuck in Time as a book-by-book tour of Vonnegut’s novels, Sumner hit on a different way of producing a very repetitious work. Chapter after chapter he points out how Vonnegut revisits the same themes: the need for acting decently, the dangers of technology, how it hurts to be alone, the benefits of having extended families, and so on. Sumner reuses the same quotations – sometimes even on the same page. His analysis tends toward the banal. Comments like this are typical of his critical incisiveness: “A diligent student of good writing practice, Vonnegut was interested above all in connecting with his audience, and he stayed sensitive and alert to its needs.” Concise sentences and brief chapters attest to this. Here’s Sumner on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965): “What makes this work a breakthrough and gives it staying power – it was always a favorite in the eyes of the author, and remains so among his devoted readers – is its unabashed heart.” Isn’t that nice?

Readers wanting refreshers on the plots and characters of Vonnegut’s work, but preferring not to read the actual books, however short, might find Unstuck in Time a valuable resource. Then again, Sumner’s summaries can make the stories seem ridiculous and suggest that Vonnegut had reasons for fearing that he wasn’t taken seriously. Here, for instance, is how Sumner explains Vonnegut’s second novel:

Sirens of Titan … posits a world in which all human endeavors turn out to have been engineered by remote intelligences, toward the most mundane end imaginable. The protagonist, a wealthy profligate lost soul named Malachai Constant, is led across the solar system on the way to finding his purpose in life…. Amid concentric circles of manipulation and competing narratives to make sense of it all – and the flying saucers and mind-control devices and Martian sleeper agents that Vonnegut throws at us in quick succession in this wildly convoluted tale, comic book trappings that we never take seriously – Malachai Constant embraces the truths that reside within. [Emphasis decidedly his.]

Despite the novel’s science-fiction trappings, it abounds, Sumner insists, in the identical autobiographical elements that he finds in abundance in all of Vonnegut’s novels. (He pays scant attention to the short stories and only mines the nonfiction for biographical background.)

With almost every loving look at a Vonnegut novel, Sumner follows the same pattern. He intertwines recapitulation of the narrative with glances at what he believes are the relevant episodes from the writer’s life, states what he takes to be the critical consensus on the work in question, and then gives his glowing estimate of its lasting value. Not a few times, this necessitates acknowledging that others found the fiction something less that first rate. Sumner, however, will not be swayed. He allows that Breakfast of Champions “took a bashing among critics” before declaring it “at once one of Vonnegut’s most beloved and most controversial enterprises” and insisting that it “remains fresh today thanks to its outrageousness and relentless honesty about an author and a culture in crisis.” Although Slapstick (1976) “was mostly savaged by the critics,” Sumner quotes at length from one “exception to the overall negative response,” a review by John Updike. Sumner happily reports that reviews for the next book, Jailbird (1979), “fortunately, were mostly enthusiastic.” He concludes his chapter on that novel in a manner that suggests his own enthusiasm for Vonnegut has at least as much, if not more, to do with the message as any artistry. He says the novel’s protagonist learns “that community, kindness, small acts of generosity can get us through all kinds of rough weather. His triumph, and Vonnegut’s too, is an openness to such moments of grace. Meanwhile, we keep alive the struggle, hold close the mythical inspiration of Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Powers Hapgood – long distance warriors, men to follow.” The “we” in that breathless last sentence must refer to people like Sumner: readers devotionally enamored with what Vonnegut, and labor leaders he admired, had to say on social issues. Sumner wraps up Unstuck in Time by noting that “all of his novels remain in print” – something Vonnegut himself boasts several times in McCartan’s collection – and by asserting, “His legacy is secure.” I’m unconvinced. Martin Amis, in a more clear-eyed assessment, predicts: “In my view, Slaughterhouse-Five will retain its status as a dazzling minor classic, as will two or three of its predecessors.” (He presumably classes Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as the others with potential staying power.) Nothing Sumner says persuades me otherwise. Perhaps an English major Shields quotes got it right by saying, “What J.D. Salinger was to me in high school, Kurt Vonnegut is to me in college,” and implying that after graduation, one moves on.

To his credit, Shields concedes that not everything Vonnegut composed glows with literary greatness. Vonnegut had his breakthrough with Slaughterhouse-Five, inspiring young admirers to make pilgrimages to his West Barnstable house, but a falling off followed. “On the strength of Vonnegut’s reputation,” Shields explains, “Breakfast of Champions spent a year on the best seller lists, proving that he could indeed publish anything and make money.” (One of the most attention-grabbing claims Shields forwards involves acquisitiveness. He alleges that Vonnegut, the pacifist critic of greed, not only eagerly invested in the stock market but also owned stock in Dow Chemical, “the sole maker of napalm during the Vietnam War.” Here, though, he intends no criticism, insisting that, despite his fondness for that socialist fellow son of Indiana Eugene Debs, Vonnegut never opposed free enterprise. Vonnegut’s son Mark, in any case, disputes this and other parts of Shields’s biography, according to a Guardian article that appeared soon after the book’s publication. Further still, Shields says Vonnegut had someone else manage his finances, including his stock purchases, leaving it unclear how conscious or conscientious of an investor Vonnegut actually was.) Less impressed than Updike by Slapstick, Shields writes: “When the last sentence finally arrives, ‘And so on,’ the reader is tempted to agree, ‘Whatever.’” Having noted that “critics intimated that Vonnegut’s best writing was behind him,” the most Shields can muster on his behalf is this: “Kurt’s prose, whether it soared or belly-flopped, was entirely his.”

Shields also differs from Sumner by distinguishing between the man and his public persona. He may have put himself in his books, but how Vonnegut presented himself and how he was could diverge, at least now and then. Although Shields rejects the term black humor, preferring instead comic-didactic to describe Vonnegut’s means of instructing while entertaining, he recognizes that humor featured prominently in the novels. Readers could and did extrapolate from his narrative voice an image of the writer (as Shield in his way does too), but sometimes failed to notice mismatches. For one, “without the veil of fiction, he comes across as a pretty cheerless soul.” For another, the façade of an avuncular late-twentieth century Mark Twain belies the reality of what he sees as an unhappy existence, especially near its end. Shields (in a characterization Mark Vonnegut disputes) depicts Vonnegut as a despondent, cranky and bitter.

This brings us back to another problem with the sort of critical enterprise that treats art as therapy (and/or prayer) and critics as interpreter-analysts. If writing for Vonnegut was simultaneously psychological and spiritual practice, then it wasn’t very effective. Sumner attributes “what was reported as a suicide attempt” in 1984 at least in part to “despair over the direction of the country,” while Shields identifies Vonnegut’s motives for self-destruction as a “typical revenge fantasy” relating to his unhappy second marriage. “Creativity is often interpreted as a response to emotional pain,” offers Shields, whose account of Vonnegut’s later years suggests writing did little to alleviate the gloom.

Readers so inclined can discern autobiographical aspects in Vonnegut’s books, but they shouldn’t conclude that they’ve hit upon anything of significance. It’s no more difficult to find similarities between Vonnegut and characters like Kilgore Trout, unappreciated science fiction writer, than it is to see resemblances between, say, Philip Roth and Nathan Zuckerman, Jewish writer from Newark, New Jersey, or between James Joyce and Stephen Dedalus, yet another pair of similar seeming scribblers. (Shields and Sumner both also report that Vonnegut based Trout on the writer Theodore Sturgeon, but never mind.) Indeed, “Kurt Vonnegut” shows up in several of the novels, or, as Sumner puts it, Vonnegut did “insert himself overtly into his works.” Yet biographical critics noticing that Vonnegut used what Shields calls “the metafictional technique of the author entering the text,” and tallying up the times he does so, demonstrate nothing other than that they’ve read the books and spied the name on the covers in the pages well. Further, it should surprise no one that a man’s mother killing herself on Mother’s Day just months before he headed off for army service, during which he endured the Allies’ obliteration of a German city of no military significance, might influence the subjects and themes he subsequently explores when he becomes a writer. Yet pointing to parallels doesn’t amount to much even if the aim is to gain insight into the man instead of what he made. Simplistic biographical criticism dead ends with pursuers of correlations between life and art mistaking any such similarities for insights into an author’s psyche and ignoring what he invented by tediously enumerating what he did not. Whatever can’t be linked back to an actual person or event tends to get overlooked. To say that every character in a book represents some aspect of the author or people the author knew is to say close to nothing, even if it takes several hundred pages to do it. While McCaran could prompt weary readers to cry out “Enough already,” Shields and Sumner might spur them to exclaim, if not the questions proposed above, then another one: So what?

 

John G. Rodwan, Jr., is author Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010) and Christmas Things (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2011). He lives in Detroit.

 

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