Reprinting here an essay I posted on an early blog of mine; published there, originally, January 6, 2011…
In November of 2009 I bought a published collection of “unpublished” (surely a misnomer?) short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote, soon after reading most of it:
November 4, 2009 at 3:13 am · Edit
There’s a poignantly unsophisticated-yet-very-effective short story, by Kurt Vonnegut, in his latest posthumous collection, called “Ed Luby’s Key Club”… it’s a childish allegory of Fascism, written by a worldly man in all his jarringly optimistic grief. It’s as awkwardly lyric, and moving, as an old German woodcut. The book’s foreword is coy about when Vonnegut actually wrote these; could be vintage McCarthy era; could be vintage Bushiana.
Re-integrating Vonnegut’s aesthetic into my late-mid feel for Literary Art is an interesting challenge. It’s so much easier to re-integrate Calvino, probably because his work is in translation, for me. Vonnegut is unadulterated front-porch-on-a-Wednesday-night-in-Indiana stuff with inexplicable elements of High Style. Twain reads like Henry James in comparison; the Twain comparisons always struck me as too convenient.
Now, Dan, over at The Reading Experience, is bashing the book in terms which expose, in my opinion, the weaknesses of the academic approach to any Lit/Art/Culture which must, by necessity, do double-duty as populist product. Vonnegut’s populist origins/inclinations are spotlit in Look at the Birdie and threaten to jeopardize his already iffy position on a stool in the canon, the danger of which Dan warns us about in coded language:
Jerome Klinkowitz, perhaps Vonnegut’s most loyal defender among scholarly critics, also wonders, why this book was published, averring that “one fears that by publishing such self-apparently weak work his executors may provide ammunition for those who would discount the author’s entire legacy.” One might say that having more of Vonnegut’s work in print serves a scholarly purpose, but Look at the Birdie is clearly not aimed at a scholarly audience, and its wider dissemination could indeed lead to a diminished estimation of Vonnegut’s fiction considered as a whole, at least among those who are not already confirmed Vonnegut fans.
Who are “those who would discount the author’s entire legacy” and why should their opinions count? “Self-apparently weak” by what, and whose, metric? Who, that matters, should this “scholarly audience” matter to? What is at stake here?
Vonnegut’s work is certainly not in danger of going out of print just because some abbots of academe decide it’s impure; quite the opposite: it’s when the tonsured ones are in a rapture over jealously-guarded texts in the belfry that one has to fear for the quality (and readership) of some poor author’s afterlife. Those are the books which ever-dwindling numbers will read and which are, in turn, prized by these monks for this very quality (unreadness). Why any tonsure ever considered considering Vonnegut to be belfry material is beyond me (surely ambitious phonies like Saul Bellow are more their speed), but I suspect it didn’t hurt that one of his books was grounded in a real-world-historical event worthy of “serious” academic attention (the firestorm-bombing of Dresden). Also, Slaughterhouse Five advertised Vonnegut as a flamboyantly polite pacifist at a time when chunks of the academy considered this to be a respectable lifestyle.
Vonnegut included his own enlarged-asterisk-like drawing of an asshole in his deceptively (or genuinely, or genuinely deceptively) casual Breakfast of Champions and that should have been the tip-off to the belfry monks that Vonnegut wanted the belfry monks to fuck off. Vonnegut’s ideal audience consisted, largely, in his heyday, of literate, middle-class Lefties who’d dropped out of college. You’d have to have a little bit of a liberal arts education to appreciate the psycho-political parables in Cat’s Cradle, yet not so much education that you deemed yourself incapable of responding properly to Vonnegut’s genteel Hoosier nihilism.
Dan dismisses Vonnegut-the-short-story-writer (Kurt Minor) as a processual phase in the evolution of Vonnegut-the-novelist (Kurt Major), arguing that Vonnegut abandoned his tale-telling-tail when he finally learned to walk upright…
Most of his stories are conventionally plotted, stylistically bland, melodramatic, often sentimental. The science fiction-y stories, such as “Harrison Bergeron” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” are the best, but there are too few of them to compensate for the formula pieces and dull domestic dramas to be found in Bagombo Snuff Box and, especially, Look at the Birdie. For a writer whose later work challenged readers’ expectations of fiction, Vonnegut’s short stories are disappointingly tame. That he didn’t return to the form after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five suggests that he himself recognized it didn’t really suit his talents as a writer.
…but I think Dan is missing the point that Vonnegut the populist was not just evolving as a technician but changing according to his audience’s needs and in response to the evaporating market for short fiction. Dan indicates that Vonnegut outgrew “stylistically bland, melodramatic, often sentimental” fiction when it’s more likely that those qualities were what got his early stories published when a writer could live from writing fiction for magazines.
Anyone who didn’t notice a “mind-blowing” or “let-it-all-hang-out” or “psychedelic” or “post-Watergate” quality to Vonnegut’s then-current work in the respective periods during which these very qualities were also commercial attributes wasn’t paying attention. Vonnegut was a professional writer who wanted and needed to earn money by publishing books which lots of people would read. This populist/mercantile/ pragmatic consideration is too often ignored by academic critics who don’t understand the double-impact that matters of class/money have on the history of the Arts. For above-it-all Art immune to fad and fashion, look to the rich kid who can afford to create the timeless Fuck You Artifact. Or to the super-outsider, beyond all questions or constraints imposed by selling. Good old, upper-middle class Hoosier KV was neither. He was the Artistic equivalent of a highly successful Cadillac salesman.
Dan posits an evolution from Kurt Minor to Kurt Major but I’d argue that the voice remains remarkably constant and that the early sentimentality or later phantasmagoria and/or fatalism (etc) are utilitarian, market-inspired cosmetics (not to mention bodily-age-related) and that the voice is the thing. Avid readers of KV read KV for the sound KV makes in one’s head. It is, in my opinion, an inspired misapprehension of the mechanics of Kurt’s Art to write, as Dan does:
One might say that the narrator occupies his own “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” a warp in space and time that allows a character in The Sirens of Titan, Winston Niles Rumfoord, to be everywhere all the time and to see how “all the different kinds of truth fit together.” To carry out this effect, and to create a narrative about a world in which someone might get caught up in such a thing and have access to the entire universe, requires the broader scope of a novel, and I would contend that The Sirens of Titan shows Vonnegut exploiting the formal flexibility of the novel in a way the short story–at least the kind of commercial story Vonnegut tried to write–could not sustain.
This presumes a kind of concrete (vs imposed by fiat) narrative physics that Vonnegut needed special devices to work around; this is like sitting through a movie and wondering how it’s possible to hear the voice-over emanating from the title character’s head… and coming, with a relief, to the conclusion that the character must be telepathic. There are no absolute laws. Anything is possible in the imagination of the page. Dan has needlessly rationalized an excuse for Vonnegut’s apparent narrative liberties to satisfy laws or limits which Dan himself has imposed. The myth that there is any essential or structural difference between the quality/scope/freedom/requirements of Third Person Narrative and First Person Narrative is a literal-minded idiosyncrasy of certain critics and undermines Dan’s evaluation of Vonnegut’s work. I can write:
“Magda smelled the morning’s coffee and remembered the cafe in Portugal she’d first seen Elizabeth sipping some in” or “I smelled the morning’s coffee and remembered the cafe in Portugal I’d first seen Elizabeth sipping some in” or “you smelled the morning’s coffee and remembered the cafe in Portugal you’d first seen Elizabeth sipping some in” and the mechanical differences between these sentences are nil. I can do every bit as much in one POV as I can in another, barring a bizarre compulsion to worry about simulating the physical laws of the Real World. What about First Person narrative vs Third Person narrative in a story about… talking cats? Nothing on the page is Real. Everything Is Permitted (not to be confused with an admonition that Everything Will Sell). You can make and/or “break” as many “essential” imaginary narrative rules in 1,000 words as you can in 100,000.
Perhaps there are two schools of narrative analysis: the school that frets over Roman Senators speaking with Brooklyn accents in low-budget flicks from the 50s and the school that doesn’t. This (Now) is an era, remember, in which Hollywood films of The Cat in the Hat and Where The Wild Things Are require back-stories and psychological motivational subtext because some utterly random (era-contingent) Law is violated, apparently, if the audience is simply shown an island of Wild Things, or a cat in a hat, and expected to take this state of affairs for granted.
In response to Dan’s put-down of Look at the Birdie I wrote, in his comment thread:
Dan, I feel there are pleasures to be found in “Look at the Birdie” and they are pleasures unique to Vonnegut’s project and on a continuum with the pleasures he packs into his more “important” books. It’s a great advantage, as a reader, not to have to worry about Vonnegut’s reputation or the “damage” these stories might inflict on it.
The stories in LATB may or may not be thematically trivial or quotidian bits of KV’s output but they are not clumsily done; they are, recognizably, the professional work of Kurt Vonnegut. I think the draw, for anyone who genuinely enjoys the writerly voice of Kurt Vonnegut, is obvious. Having grown up not far from where KV grew up, I recognize his voice as a colossally modern, philosophically honest achievement of the unabashed Flyover.
Some writers write for/to/in-fear-of critics/posterity but Vonnegut was not that type. Kilgore Trout, who always struck me as KV dreaming himself beyond the end of all vanity/reputation/money curses, was perfectly happy to leave fresh work in public trash cans for reader(s) to happen upon and perceive in a pristine, as it were, state.
I paid €20, or so, for LATB and I don’t feel cheated. I like two of the stories (and the intro letter/essay); two well-wrought stories and a witty essay will do it for me. Anyone out there care to write two stories as entertainingly well-wrought as “Hall of Mirrors” and I will gladly pay you €20 for the pair.
The writer of “Slaughterhouse Five” is clearly the writer of “Ed Luby’s Key Club”. The latter is the allegorical expression of the worldview that went mainstream with the former: that of the Moral Atheist who doesn’t expect a prize for knowing exactly why the world will never be as good as it should be. The fluent simplicity of Vonnegut’s style is an extension of his philosophical common sense.
The fluently simplistic LATB is chock full of philosophical common sense; if philosophical common sense won’t float your boat, why bother with Kurt Vonnegut at all? An oeuvre is more than the writer’s greatest hits and hairiest breakthroughs.
Posted by: Steven Augustine | 01/05/2011 at 02:07 PM
I have also written, here on TET, about KV and this particular book,
I tend to think of Craft as a sensual, beastly, anti-intellectual henchman that runs off with the Art if it isn’t properly repressed and Uncle Kurt was damn good at using Inspiration to beat-back the particularly massive henchman of his Craft. He’s also good at proving Marty A. wrong on his hyperbolic notion of the need to boil and rake the work free of all cliché: Vonnegut makes use of cliché like the greatest 1950′s-era housewives made wondrous lunch from leftovers. KV finds a precious resource in cliché: the rhythm and tone of the voice of the “Common Man (and Woman)”. Not just marble but also cheese cloth is the stuff of Fine Art in the right hands and Kurt’s hands were right. Not that all the stories in this “new” posthumous collection suck themselves shut with the satisfying pop of the hermetic seal of genius; there’s some filler in there, too, I feel. Three or four of the stories (I especially like the one about the Romanian hypnotist) are so good they make me think it might be nice to spend more time with people who drink beer, go to church picnics and marry women with mothers named Edna. Not that any of that is in the book but the thing is rich with that feeling-tone. Go’bless Mr. Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s populist talent in “fluent simplicity” is either the result of very hard work or a prodigious gift, but it’s there in the early stories and very few writers can pull it off (even at Kurt’s most Hoosier, the voice is more technically sophisticated than any number of Brooklyners writing in McFA cadences about AIDs, Crack and Trust Fund Anomie). The academic critics who are still interested in Vonnegut to the extent that they would “save” him for posterity by chopping his oeuvre in half and discarding the “conventionally plotted, stylistically bland, melodramatic, often sentimental” short stories remind me of George Martin’s doomed remark that The Beatles “White Album” should have been released as a much “tighter” single disc of only the very best songs.
Very few of the people who have owned and loved that album would agree.