Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Vonnegut Without A Country

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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Suburban Turmoil said...

I read Cat's Cradle on my own in high school and loved it. I keep meaning to read more...

I'm glad I learned here about Slapstick. I bought a remaindered copy a few years ago and haven't gotten around to reading it. Now I thinkk I never will!

Read/Think/Live said...

Lucinda, unless you break out in hives from science fiction, I really recommend Sirens of Titan--that's my favorite Vonnegut book, and I love them all.

Vonnegut's "yard sales" are better than most writers' "new" stuff. His ideas are worth repeating and need to be put out there however and whenever they can be.

Olyal said...

I have never read any of Kurt Vonnegut's work... but after reading your post I think I'll trot up the road to the library and the secondhand bookshop and see what I can find. :o)

Anonymous said...

Vonnegut is wildly uneven but even his D- efforts, in my head, are better than a lot of the other stuff that's out there. Slapstick, was pretty weird and all, and may even have gone for some unnecessary shock value, but it's still an interesting tale and comment on the human condition. I could have done without the "hi ho"s, since they are just a pale echo of "So it goes", but they didn't really detract from the story itself and do occasionally offer a visual full stop for the reader.

Alan said...

I enjoyed Slapstick a great deal, and think it gets a bad rap. At the time I first read it, the idea of artificial families spoke to the lonely outsider in me quite strongly. I even attempted to watch the movie version, though that will put the fear of literature into anyone.