Tuesday, 15 January 2013

AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut - A Life by CHARLES J. SHIELDS & UNSTUCK IN TIME: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels by GREGORY D. SUMNER

AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut - A Life
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012, 515 pages, $39.95 (pb)

UNSTUCK IN TIME: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels
Seven Stories Press, 2012, 355 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Not everyone was impressed by Kurt Vonnegut.  His local paper objected to his famous 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five - ‘his style is not conventional, his approach is not delicate, his themes are not conservative’ – whilst in North Dakota in 1973 the school board of the town of Radke ordered three dozen copies of the book to be shovelled into the school furnace.

Vonnegut’s admirers, however, more than made up for his detractors, as two new biographies by Charles Shields and Gregory Sumner attest.

Born in Indianapolis in 1922 of German-American ancestry, journalism sidetracked Vonnegut from completing higher education but taught the future novelist the virtues of clarity and economy in writing.  He also discovered that, to write well, he needed ‘an axe to grind’.  His coming-of-age years provided him with two whetstones – the Great Depression, which turned him against capitalism’s inequities, and World War 2, which made him a pacifist.

Mobilised to Europe after the D-Day landings, Private Vonnegut stumbled headfirst into Hitler’s last gamble (the Battle of the Bulge) and he became a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany where he was forced to dig the graves of watching American POWs who had been condemned to be shot.  It was, however, the mass murder of the horrific Allied firestorm bombing of Dresden in February, 1945, which scarred Vonnegut.

He survived by sheltering in the storage room of a slaughterhouse, two levels below ground, but the ‘tableaux of horrors’ above the abattoir, and his later reflection that the carnage was for no strategic advantage (‘it didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defence or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp’), turned him against all wars, advocating especially, writes Sumner, for the “future bombing victims” of all America’s subsequent wars.

Along with war, other traditional and newly-hyped ideas and institutions (‘progress’, materialism, nationalism, the moon landing, nuclear power, the ‘conquest of nature’) were debunked by Vonnegut the social critic, radical raconteur and protest rally speaker.  Vonnegut, a once-aspirant labour movement organiser, also flailed at the ‘savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate American class system’, praising trade unions as ‘admirable instruments for extorting something like economic justice from employers’.

It would be a mistake, however, as both authors agree, to see Vonnegut as a revolutionary.  Sympathetic to socialism, Vonnegut described himself, however, as a ‘lifelong Northern Democrat in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt tradition, a friend of the working stiffs’ whose political philosophy was ‘unsystematic’ and strategically vague.  He wanted not to overthrow capitalism as to somehow make it fairer, more humane and less destructive.

A child of the family-wealth-sapping Depression, Vonnegut “admired entrepreneurship and could be a shrewd businessman”, writes Sumner, whether that involved Saab dealerships or writing for the mass magazine and pulp fiction market which he did early on when his novels had been distributed “along with westerns and teenage romances to drug stores and bus stations”.  Vonnegut sought the security of wealth, even if this meant investing in big property developers, IBM, anti-union mining companies and Dow Chemical (the maker of napalm during the Vietnam War).

Vonnegut’s novels, however, rose above his political contradictions.  Despite the chaotic absurdity of a world ruled by predatory capitalism and mechanised death, Vonnegut found an inherent dignity, humour and kindness in its victims.  Starved and beaten by sadistic guards as a POW, for example, Vonnegut was also fed by sympathetic local German women at much risk to themselves.

His faith in the counterweight of ‘community’ was resilient, especially amongst the young, those irrepressible questioners of the social order, who (when they looked up from their digital distractions - the typewriter-using Vonnegut had many reservations about the cyber-revolution) strove for meaning and purpose in a better world.

Vonnegut has been dismissed by some in the literary establishment as a cult, sci-fi author.  They dislike his genre-straddling, narrative-subverting, expressionistic style (staccato sentences, short chapters, use of graphics and white space) – the very qualities which make his novels something like poetry.

This is sometimes literary cover for a deeper scorn for Vonnegut’s social and political values.  Alas, this includes one of his biographers, Shields, who disapproves of Vonnegut reminding Americans that Al Qaeda does not have the monopoly on terror because it was the US that was the only nation ever to pulverise civilians with atomic weapons.  Shields also denigrates Vonnegut’s opposition to the US war in Afghanistan as the confused thinking of an 83 year old and a failure to recognise that world freedom and US capitalism are indivisible.  Sumner, fortunately, avoids the political pitfalls of American patriotism, although his close textual analysis of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels requires, to be most useful, familiarity with all of them.

Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 from brain injury after tripping over the leash of his much loved pet dog.  After surviving both the Nazis and the Allies during terrible war, the superb ironist might have noted of his own demise, using his famous catchphrase, ‘and so it goes’.

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