Kurt Vonnegut | Critical Review by James Wood

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Kurt Vonnegut.
This section contains 1,313 words
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Critical Review by James Wood

SOURCE: "The Wrecked Generation," in Times Literary Supplement, November 15, 1991, pp. 8-9.

In the review below, Wood discusses the role of comedy in Fates Worse than Death.

Dreamy, hectically anecdotal, slovenly and bearish with the truth, Kurt Vonnegut's writing has always handled fact with comic negligence. It has a kind of epistemological cockiness, amassing detail only to mock its sureties. Knowledge enters his books with a hiatus, a cloudiness. Consider, for example, his fondness for place-name couplets—Genoa, Italy, or Hellertown, Pennsylvania, or Indianapolis, Indiana. He loads his sentences with all kinds of names: "They were Lance Rumfoord, of Newport, Rhode Island, and his bride, the former Cynthia Landry, who had been a childhood sweet-heart of John F. Kennedy, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts." This is a kind of nonsense verse—mildly subversive, rhythmical, sprawling, but comically precise ("the former Cynthia Landry"). It is not that names like George Minor Moakely or Miss Francine Pefko or Indianapolis, Indiana are intrinsically funny (as bad English comic writers seem to think); what is comic is the author's belief that he can locate himself and his readers through names. Such earnest striving merely unmoors us, of course.

Autobiography, with its traditionally zealous relation to the real and historical, is a fine playground for Vonnegut's games. Like its predecessor Palm Sunday, this latest collection of essays and speeches [Fates Worse than Death] is rigged with digressions, self-mockery, useless gossip and parenthetical ironics. There are many piercing jokes. The book's comic circuitry is bathos, from high to low and back again. The prose makes wild connections, but abjures argumentative termini. As in Vonnegut's fiction, it is hard to know what to believe. "All persons," runs Vonnegut's smirking disclaimer, "living and dead, are purely coincidental and should not be construed." It is entirely appropriate that the book should open with a photograph of Vonnegut and Heinrich Böll, laughing together. Vonnegut, as ever, looks mild, open and dreamy. The two writers, he tells us in his preface, were talking about how best to fake a wound so as to avoid fighting in an army. "Böll said that the correct way to shoot yourself was through a loaf of bread, in order to avoid powder burns. That is what we are laughing about." A page later, Vonnegut comments on the preface he is just finishing: "Only now am I sticking this coverlet, as my editor, Faith Sale, and I prepare to put the creature to beddy-bye." Faith Sale: probably she is Vonnegut's editor. But something about the insouciance of that sentence wraps her status in doubt, co-opts her as one of Vonnegut's creations, one of his names.

This is a matter of style, of course, as it is in all great comedy. Though Vonnegut's prose has lost some of its verbal affluence (there is much less flossing and polishing than there used to be), Fates Worse Than Death still reminds us of the vigour of the contemporary comic American voice from e. e. cummings, through John Berryman to Vonnegut and Pynchon. We might call this voice the unbearable lightness of style. It has a perilous levity. It is a language of rapid evasion and denial, with all kinds of ironic buoyancies. In Berryman's Dream Songs for instance, and in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, rages, griefs and complaints are moving in proportion to the denial of them which the language effects. Poised between innocence and the irony of forced jollity, it is a way of childishly baring one's soul. One thinks of Berryman's "I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation", or one of the lines from Song 14: "Life, friends, is boring". This is Vonnegut's tone also; the shoulder-shrugging surrender of "Life is sure funny sometimes" (Cat's Cradle) or "Hi Ho" (Slapstick) or, most famously, "So it goes" (Slaughterhouse-Five). It is perilous because one word out of place will turn this unbearable lightness into unbearable heaviness. In this book, while discussing his father (gentle, tolerant, serene) and his mother (neurotic, alcoholic), Vonnegut's tone never trips. But he almost loses it when discussing a fellow writer, Donald Barthelme, who died aged fifty-eight, at the peak of his talent: "At a memorial service for the brilliant author Donald Barthelme (who was surely sorry to die, since he was going from strength to strength)…." The lightness here, and at a couple of other moments, seems a little too airy. Most of the time, however, Vonnegut is more grounded. The key is rhythm and pacing, as in this description of his son: "He is now a pediatrician in Boston, with a wife and two fine sons, and two fine automobiles."

Vonnegut's prose is rude, gassy and sublime. It throws out splinters of comedy with great ease. There are many conversational quips, most of them coyly clothed in brackets. Gossiping about Tennessee Williams, for instance, he suddenly cracks: "(He and T. S. Eliot grew up in St Louis, but Williams admitted it. He didn't all of a sudden start talking like the Archbishop of Canterbury.)" Other jokes are larger, and in the service of his decent political radicalism (there are speeches and essays here about America's war-greed, the folly of "surgical" bombing, the cruelty and secret longevity of Western imperialism—Vonnegut's usual quiver of themes). Writing about how liberty was not born in Boston or Philadelphia in 1776 because "slavery was legal" and women were unfree, he adds: "Liberty was only conceived in Boston or Philadelphia. Boston or Philadelphia was the motel of liberty, so to speak."

Vonnegut is lovable because he is warm, sentimental (in the cute and compact way a cartoon is sentimental) and self-mocking. All of the speeches reproduced in this book end with "I thank you for your attention." On the page, and so often followed by gossip and chat, this formal gratitude takes on a sly ambiguity. Unlike the audience at a speech, we hear this of our own volition. So he has no need to thank us. But he retains this line because it is humble, but also because in its uselessness, it comically undercuts pomposity. Vonnegut has radical charm. The effect of a speech on liberty, followed by this refrain of "I thank you for your attention", and then tailed by "(After that speech, a bunch of us were loaded onto a yellow school bus and taken to a Spanish restaurant)"—the effect is that of the author offering himself up at various levels, on different frequencies, with all kinds of shadings, without insistence.

Vonnegut has always put himself on to the page. John Updike, praising him as an "imaginer" rather than a "self-dramatizer", once referred to him as one who "disdains the personal". Yet this is not the sense of him that his readers have. One feels a powerful impact of vision and soul. This vision is politically radical, dreamily utopian, and it has a number of recurring themes and places (Ilium, New York, Tralfamadore, and so on). We feel his presence as an author, which may be why he writes so well and so naturally about other American authors. The most interesting part of this book is about what Vonnegut calls "the compressed history of American authorship". This compression has to do with the foreshortening of American writers' lives (Barthelme and Hemingway are Vonnegut's examples) and the speed with which an entire generation disappears—"I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation". Vonnegut, like so many of his fellow writers, seems mainly cross with America, rather than God, for doing this wrecking. One senses that, at sixty-seven, he is amused and surprised to find himself a survivor.

The more Vonnegut writes, the more American he seems—a kind of de-solemnized Emerson, at once arguer, doubter, sermonizer and gossip. Indeed, Emerson's opening question of his essay Experience, "Where do we find ourselves?", might well stand as an epigraph to Vonnegut's questing work. Like that of the great essayist, Vonnegut's prose seems radically accountable: a man lives behind it.

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This section contains 1,313 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Wood
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