Thursday, 25 September 2014

Don’t be disappointed with Kurt!

Full title: Armageddon in Retrospect And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (edited by Mark Vonnegut)
Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction
Attributes: 240p, hardback
Publisher: Putnam (2008)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s a shame the work of Kurt Vonnegut cannot be read without the shadow of Slaughterhouse Five looming thick and nigh poisonous over everything. Put together by Mark Vonnegut, the writer’s son, the collection Armageddon in Retrospect appears to be precisely under the spell of this exclusivist love for the 1969 novel that made the author so (too?) famous. A review by Roy Blount Jr., published in the New York Times almost a year after Vonnegut’s death in 2007 and months after the publication of this collection, keeps a very distant tone and gives more credit to the son than it does to the author himself. On British soil, the book didn’t fare any better, if we take the word of The Guardian, where Jan Morris’s review ends in a straightforward declaration of disappointment, followed immediately by another refuge in the celebrity of Slaughterhouse Five. Add to all this the very introduction composed by Mark Vonnegut, a text equally clouded by a general meh feeling, and you get the feel of how these previously unpublished stories have been received.

But things look better (much better) than these reviews point out.
What I believe is worth paying a little closer attention to, and what (knowing Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent career in the field) students in Creative Writing are likely to be interested in perusing is the narrative technique to be found in no short supply in this collection. OK, these may be early works. OK, they may be lesser versions of Slaughterhouse Five (although, I think, even that can be negotiated at various points). But when you read something like
“Ivy pressed her back to the wall, as though God had just passed by.”
(“The Unicorn Trap”)

you need to admit it: you’re in the process of witnessing genius. Try to imagine an expression of awe, astonishment, fear and adoration – all mixed together and delivered as one parcel – that’s more evocative than this, and you’ll be ill at ease to find a better candidate.

"I guess all of you know, that I am suing the manufacturer of Pall Mall cigarettes,
because their product didn't kill me." Not then. And so it goes. Source: The Guardian
Another thing that stands out, as it stood in Vonnegut’s other works, is his carefulness around details. If the narratives are memorable, they are not because of the events they describe; not entirely so. They are also memorable because of how the characters make their appearance, how they touch insignificant objects, how they make tiny gestures (like the same character, who at some point “scratches herself daintily”), how they breathe and eat in ways rarely seen in literature, and how they discover the irrationality of the world.

Such as:
“The man in the bunk overhead was also astir. I asked him for the time. He stuck his head over the side, and I saw that his jaws were crammed with bread; be blew a shower of crumbs over me as he answered. He said he no longer had a watch. He chewed and swallowed until a major portion of the great wad of bread was cleared from his mouth and he could make himself understood.”
(“Brighten Up”)

And then, of course, one cannot be so desensitized as to overlook Vonnegut’s reflections on war, which cover a pretty extensive part of the volume. Sometimes, they appear as philosophical cogitations, as in:
“World War II was fought for near-Holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombing of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem.”
(“Great Day”)

At other times, they are embedded in narrative admonitions:
“It is with some regret that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but boys, you killed an appalling lot of women and children.”
(“Great Day”)

The combination of humour and repugnance, of humanity and lack thereof, is, no doubt, the “Saint Kurt the Vonnegut” trademark. You feel it in the sarcasm of statements like the ones above. He says it in the text that opens the collection; the unbeatable and unstoppable need for humour, for play:
“And somebody might now want to ask me, ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’ The answer is, ‘No.’”

And then there’s one more thing to be said about this collection, to silence the critics; or at least make them think again. The fact that these stories appeared posthumously should give an indication that the author himself may have felt a little uneasy about publishing them straight up. Maybe he himself saw in them mere exercises; experiments of sorts. So let’s be a little less “disappointed,” and read the collection in its proper context.