The late Kurt Vonnegut gets a little attention in today’s Wall Street Journal, thanks to a book of letters from one of his former students and romantic interests, Loree Rackstraw. It’s the sort of attention though, that usually greets writers once they immediately pass from the scene - the dismissive glance backward of a critical re-evaluation.
Vonnegut was famously called one of our most overrated writers, and one of the worst technically, by Gore Vidal. (It’s easy how critical you can be when nobody reads your own work…) His final novels tend to resemble paycheck affairs where he seems contractually obligated to put in a few hundred pages wandering gamely around an idea fit for a short story. His political writings are smug, overly simplistic, hypercritical, and unrelentingly bleak, even for humanism. To judge from some of his essays, his not committing suicide before his death in 2007 was an act of moral courage.
In retrospect, he doesn’t seem to have coped well with the titanic fame that descended on him in the late sixties. Salman Rushdie told of meeting Vonnegut in the early 1980s, who asked him if he was serious about “this writing business.” “What you should know, is that there is going to be a time when you don’t have a book to write and you still have to write a book,” Vonnegut supposedly told Rushdie. That statement, more than anything, seems to sum up some of his later work.
Unlike many of his readers, I did not discover Kurt Vonnegut in high school or college but about 10 years later, and it was, to put it bluntly, a revelation. In recent years, I've seen people who used to praise him instead turn their backs on him as being overly simplistic, much like readers of C.S. Lewis who later decide they've "outgrown" him. Those who dismiss Vonnegut as a crusty, cranky hack ignore a very technically adroit writer who produced a whole stable of brilliant novels when the literary world was looking elsewhere.
Instead of writing the same, inane novel about young intellectuals struggling in New York City, or suburbanites crushed by the weight of bourgeois morality, Vonnegut instead wrote morality tales swathed in pseudo-science fiction. He created whole worlds and customs for his characters and blithely destroyed them, while violating the rules of exposition and structure to our great delight. His early work seems steeped more in a clear-eyed utilitarian libertarianism rather than the murky liberalism he espoused in later years. Strangely enough, his novels’ bewildering structure disrupts the flow at just the proper points. He doesn’t feel the need to dazzle with long sentences, and dazzles anyway.
I would choose two works to sum him up - besides the obvious choice, the enduring, semi-autobiographical “Slaughterhouse Five.” Vonnegut took the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann as his inspiration for “Mother Night,” a dizzying tale of an American Nazi collaborator, Howard W. Campbell Jr., who is not all he appears to be. It illustrates Vonnegut’s enduring idea of how human beings can be absurd pawns in much larger games and yet responsible for their own undoing by becoming willing participants.
The other is “Jailbird,” a 1979 novel from his later period that I think is easily the best. Its hero, the bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck, is a Watergate collaborator with a connection to a forgotten labor massacre. In the novel, Vonnegut prophesies the increasingly corporate nature of American life and sends his hero to prison and back for various reasons, tragic and comic.
The secret to Kurt Vonnegut is the same as his alter-ego, the well-traveled science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who appears out of nowhere in his novels seemingly to disrupt the plot with his own plots, and leaves us with a vision that is much sharper. And more fun. Much more fun.
“Life goes on, yes - and a fool and his self-respect are soon parted, perhaps never to be reunited even on Judgment Day.” - Jailbird