Kurt Vonnegut's new book, A Man Without A Country, is the kick-off point for a very good retrospective essay in the Washington Post by Bob Thompson. The essay is very complimentary, but also fair and balanced (in the literal, not the FoxNews, way) about Kurt's entire body of work. The one new great insight is that Vonnegut's World War II novel Slaughterhouse-Five pointed out at the height of the Vietnam War that even in the good wars, we are capable of inhuman attrocities. Maybe the current world situation is part of the reason behind a minor Vonnegut revival.
Thompson sums up Vonnegut's career with this synopsis:
He's seen "Slaughterhouse-Five" get the Hollywood treatment. He's seen it selected No. 18 on the Modern Library's list of the hundred best English-language novels of the 20th century and "Cat's Cradle" anointed by Yale critic Harold Bloom as part of the "Western canon." And he's written more than a dozen additional books, among them "Breakfast of Champions," "Slapstick," "Galapagos," "Hocus Pocus" and "Timequake," which have been published -- this is putting it gently -- to diminishing critical acclaim.As reporting, this accurate. Slapstick in particular unleashed an enormous critical backlash against Vonnegut by the literati. Vonnegut himself admits that Slapstick was at best a D- effort. Some of the later works have been very unfairly ignored. Galapagos is very interesting and ahead of its time with evolution in the hot seat as it is. And Bluebeard is one of the most under-rated works of the last 25 year.
My love of Vonnegut has been mentioned on this blog before, and I have been avoiding a real review of A Man Without A Country because it is a collection of essays that have been told better in other places. The Post article states:
He has also said he did his best work before he was 55, and "my life is essentially a garage sale now of stuff I wrote a long time ago." This is an accurate assessment.If Vonnegut were a rock star, Cat's Cradle would have been his indie label masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five his mainstream breakthrough, and Breakfast of Champions the big selling hit that has all the early fans say, "Well I have been reading him since Mother Night."
Unfortunately, the metaphor can be stretched to the breaking point. Slapstick was a near career ending mess that nearly made the label drop him. Bagombo Snuff Box was the collection of demo's and outtakes. Timequake was released with too much filler, and A Man Without A Country is an EP of live acoustic remakes. Most of the riffs have been done better earlier, but it's good to hear the melodies again.
However, even in this uneven mix he does throw off some great lines as sharp and insightful as anything he produced earlier. My favorite completely new line is
I think novels that leave out technololgy misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.No one could have said it better, Kurt.
Karen at Read-Think-Live has also weighed in on the new book.
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