Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

Kurt Vonnegut: A Retrospective

by Kevin McGowin

Kurt Vonnegut has become an American and International icon, writing pithy and memorable nuggets in simple sentences. Like this. Like Hemingway—but he's not a crass "realist" like Hemingway, either. In fact, he gets at his "truths" through the "back door", as it were—he's never really been a Science Fiction or Fantasy writer. What Kurt Vonnegut has done is developed his own, essentially inimitable style, one that his made him a Household Name well beyond the literati and the classroom, where he's only just recently been making overdue headway. Vonnegut has achieved this primarily, in my opinion, through style and repetition—he writes children's books for adults.

I've never heard anyone else say (or write) that, because it sounds demeaning. Far from it! But it's key, a Key Factor of Truth here, and maybe just saying it's enough—you read a Vonnegut book (book, for they are their own unique and original form of novel, short chapters, drawings, you don't really need an Introduction if you're reading this) and you've suddenly learned more about History and Sociology and Anthropology and Philosophy—IOW, life—than one can or does in most specialized College courses.. And part of his early (and enduring) appeal for many readers is that he deplores the very idea of all that stuff!

Plus, he's a Quick & Easy Read. On the surface.

I actually mean this as a compliment—hey, one gets absolutely sick of Dickens and Faulkner and Dostoevsky after a while, I'll be the Thousandth to tell ya! And hey, I really, really like Vonnegut's work, in general—go read any part of any of my four currently available e-novels and you'll see just what a huge Influence he's been on me.

There, I've Shown my Hand. Which is not to say I love all of it, that some books aren't more successful (on their own terms, I'm saying) than others, and that with the possible exception of his "masterpiece", Slaughterhouse-Five, the books are... very similar. But hey, they're supposed to be!

And what follows is a brief summation of the best of Vonnegut, in my personal and considered opinion (IMPCO)—but primarily, it's an examination of his "later" work in its own framework. Hokay?


Kurt Vonnegut has written a lot of books, and they all contain great passages. Many people have contended that if you read just one, it should be Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps because it's (maybe) his most straightforward novel, in not employing all the sketches and faux-editor's notes and familiar Vonnegut "tricks"—and because it's a work of genius. Like a book on the Horrors of War written by the author of The Wind in the Willows (whose name was Kenneth Grahme). And this style, found in slightly toned-down form in several other Vonnegut novels, is what underscores the Horror—see? Though Vonnegut also uses this "device" to underscore the Horrors or mundane Everyday Life, and that's where I, Kevin McGowin, find him most effective. Especially since Mundane Everyday Life is quite a bit more insidious than most people think. THIS is Kurt Vonnegut, and welcome to his world. Sci-fi? No. Never. Magic Realism, maybe, but he's never been a Sci-fi writer in his life, though he was influenced and informed by such writers, who he loves, parodies, and makes into characters and even Alter-Egos (Kilgore Trout, most notably).

True-Blue Vonnegut fans would suggest that the Uninitiated begin with Cat's Cradle (1963), arguably Vonnegut's first "major" work. If you wish—it is brilliant, and you can read a chapter a day at a Red Light and you're done in exactly four months. I'd suggest that you read it Third, however, after 1973's Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse (1968). Especially as readers of Vonnegut know that In Kurt, Linear Time is Bunk. And because despite what the Critics say (and now, my Criticism is read by thousands of people on six continents, and I love you, too) Breakfast is in many ways The "signature" Vonnegut work. It heavily informs 1997's Timequake, which is among the best of the Later "Novels" (More on these italics in a moment). THE best of the Later Novels is probably Hocus Pocus (1990), but if you say it's Bluebeard or [insert title here] I won't give you an argument. Because part of the Vonnegut Aesthetic is that there is no "best or "greatest KV book—it's really purely subjective, almost random.

It takes a true genius to pull that off over the course of a fifty-year career, Folks.


Let me say here that this "retrospective" and Appreciation is likely to mean little of nothing to real K.V. fans, of which there are a great many. He's written and published a lot, and I haven't read every word of it. Perhaps my subjective ponderings on a novel like Cat's Cradle are merely churlish—indeed, Vonnegut has never been an author about whom one is inspired to write much about, other than to praise effusively or dismiss publicly, and this is a large part of the reason for his being overlooked "academically."

But as Heavyweights such as Harold Bloom and others have noted, Vonnegut's novels of the 1960s (i.e. CC) are major, just tremendous, in terms of both their understated genius and their influence. Cat's Cradle is one of the most "influential" of all American novels. Re-reading it for this essay, I've noticed (again) just how all-pervasive this influence is—in literature, of course (virtually every major American novelist from the late '60s on has to somehow "process" it, but in film, and even music. The impact this one novel has had on all Art and Culture (not just American either, of course) is so far-reaching that its quintessential Vonnegut "theme" of the inter-connectedness of all human events or thoughts or ideas is perhaps THE major "trope" of the "Postmodern" in too many ways to mention. Yet today, over 40 years after its first publication, these tropes have become so familiar to people (my students, for instance, most of them) that its structure, innovations, and ideas (pacifism, for one) may not seem as poignant for many as they once did.

And that includes their author. Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions retain to a large degree the "plot" structure which many still hold to be an essential and intregal necessity of the "novel." Yet they also possess the nascence of what the "novel" can and has become—a text in which "plot" and "character" (and Vonnegut's characters are usually drawn very large) are dispensable. And all that this statement entails, because I'm not writing a Dissertation and you're getting the point. But the "novel" is also an artificial construction, and after Breakfast, Vonnegut began to push the boundaries of this artifice even further than he did in his earlier books. And, while huge sellers and classics among many Vonnegut "fans", the novels from 1973 on have received a mixed critical response at best.

In the interest of space, let's consider the aforementioned Hocus Pocus (HP) and Timequake (I hate to not mention God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Bluebeard, Player Piano and Slapstick, but hey—I just did!).

The former employs a "fragmentary" construction (short passages ostensibly written on scraps of paper and not intended for "publication") and frequent direct allusions to of mentions of other of the author's works; these devices are taken "all the way" in the latter, which on one reading is a sequence of personal vignettes wherein the author, Kurt Vonnegut, writes himself into the book as a "character" on a more "literal" level than even he did before it, with exceptions (of course).

The response this device got was pretty roundly negative—Vonnegut's run out of ideas, he's shot his wad, he's an egomaniac, etc.

Maybe, but on one crucial level of reading the Vonnegut of the last 30 years or so, I hold that this too is a carefully contrived and quite consideredly executed devise crucial to the work itself. Many people still don't wish to accept Vonnegut on his own terms and in Context—and what a compliment for a writer, actually! Sure—if he hadn't published what he did in the 60s, this later work wouldn't be read, and its poignancy would fall flat. But I maintain that this later work is both crucial to and in keeping with Vonnegut's sui generis aesthetic and the "logical" extension of the earlier work. Like them or not, the author remains true to his own "vision", and it's by these standards that a work should, I think, be judged.

I've written that Dickens' finest novels are Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and that Faulkner's is Light in August. But by their very nature, such distinctions do not per apply to the literary oeuvre of Kurt Vonnegut. HP may bore some people, and Timequake may seem to them as if the author is simply "journaling."

—And whether he is or isn't, the "device" is in part what these novels are "about", in both senses of that word.


Most people who read my work on other writers and artists know that "later work" is an ideé fixe for me. I want to see how a good or a great artist matures, develops, refines, re-defines, and finishes. I think it's important, and it fascinates me. With Vonnegut, the entire body of work is a "continuum," and is meant to be. In 50 or 100 years, it could be—one never knows, ever—that Vonnegut's "masterpieces" aren't just the two novels currently Canonized. In fact, with Vonnegut, the entire corpus of his literary production is a process and each book is a part of the whole—one cannot even compartmentalize or create a "hierarchy." I hold that someone who picks a single work and disses or holds it "above" the others does not really understand Vonnegut.

And Vonnegut, as if I even need to say this, is deliberately and deceptively simple. As are people who read Cat's Cradle and think, "Oh, it's a Sci-Fi novel" or ones who read Timequake and think, "He's old and tired, just publishing his memoirs now."

—Though if that's what you think, nobody's going to kill you for it, haha, just like there's a sense in which to read the later work as a loosely-strung together series of clever maxims is a valid reading! But it's by no means the only one. Kurt Vonnegut the "character" in the later novels is in a very real sense no more Kurt Vonnegut the Real Person than you are, or I am. His constantly underscoring the "artifice of Art is, if nothing else, quite interesting—and if you read closely, you can watch as he constantly undercuts the personas of the wise, loveable curmudgeon, the Avuncular Old Man, the cynical satirist parodying himself, or the unhappy old "would to God for the Good Old Days" "character" he presents in the books.

Vonnegut is an American treasure, like the late Mark Twain to whom he is (too often) compared—but he takes his own meta-fictional devices as far as they could go in the work of a single author.


As I approach my self-imposed word limit for these Quarterly Retrospectives (2000), I'm struck by just how ridiculous, in a sense, it can be to even attempt some sort of summation of Vonnegut's output. But just as with other authors, perhaps especially very popular ones, there are any number of valid ways to approach and appreciate and understand him. Which of course means that "my" personal "take" on it is just one of many, but as a novelist who has been quite directly impacted and influenced by his writing, I relish this chance to articulate just a few points that I hear few if any people commenting upon. Let this just be a brief and flawed start, then, an Introduction and invitation to those readers who haven't read much Vonnegut and in particular his (many) books published in the last twenty years, to do so (or to do so afresh) keeping in mind that whatever Vonnegut may seem to be... he both is and is not. Like all magicians, there is both more and less to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and the work produced by the man of the same name, than readily meets the eye.

Hocus Pocus, indeed.


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