Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Nation still doesn't get Vonnegut

The Nation magazine has been ripping Vonnegut as facile, naive and simplistic for decades now. This latest review of Vonnegut's work starts like it is finally going to overcome that bias, but by the end, it's the same as before.

I give the writer, William Deresiewicz, some credit for recognizing "Slaughterhouse Five's" non-linear style, but he ends up with the same old, same old style of attack on Vonnegut that is as wrong as it is itself shallow. Here is a sampling:

With Breakfast of Champions (1973), the final novel of the second volume of the Library of America edition, Vonnegut begins the long, uneven slide that lasted for the rest of his career. There would be eight more novels altogether. This one barely seems to try, and Vonnegut knows it. (“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” he tells himself at one point.) Much of it consists of ad hoc rants against pollution, racism, consumerism and assorted other ills. The only character who seems to interest him at this point is himself. So much that was rare and spare and powerful in Slaughterhouse-Five, that established the novel’s stylistic signature, is pimped out here for cheap effects. “Listen” occurs not three times but ten, whenever he needs to goose the story, until you want to scream, “We’re listening already!” The earlier novel had two line drawings; this one has more than a hundred.

It's not that he's wrong about the weakness of "Breakfast of Champions." Where he's wrong is in the casual implied dismissal of Vonnegut's later works, whether it's "Galapagos," "Slapstick," or "Hocus Pocus." In each of these novels, Vonnegut fine tuned the non-linear narrative that makes him unique among most other writers, especially American writers. The "rants" about various societal matters may have seemed "ad hoc" in "Breakfast of Champions," but it was organized in these later novels around a theme that was biologically and culturally brilliant, and that is the nature of humanity, alone and in groups.

The most ridiculous thing in Deresiewicz's review is contained in the penultimate paragraph, where Deresiewicz writes:

Slaughterhouse-Five had made him not only a celebrity, but a spokesman. He was an idol of the young, a voice of the counterculture, a man whose views would henceforth be solicited for a never-ending stream of interviews, articles, profiles, addresses. He stood for peace, love, decency, humanity—became the Kurt Vonnegut we knew for the final four decades of his life, a figure about whom it was possible to say, in the words of a recent book, that “precious few authors have ever loved mankind so completely.” He became, in other words, exactly what he had always warned against, a prophet of gimcrack religions: in this case, a facile faith of niceness that neatly concealed his bottomless darkness.

Vonnegut taught us that we're really not all that nice as people, and that the hardest thing for any human being to be is...nice. That insight is not about loving humankind so "completely," but is more the province of the misanthrope. One can say, as Deresiewicz seems to be saying, "Oh, misanthropy is really unrequited love expressed with irony," but that is certainly not loving "mankind so completely." Vonnegut tried to kill himself in his middle age, and failing that, succumbed to the slow burn of his cigarette. In his last years, Vonnegut would hold up a cigarette, look at it, and then the audience and say something like this: "You know, I'm thinking of suing the cigarette companies. They promised me their products would kill me...but so far, I'm still here. They lied to me." If there is anything facile, it is Deresiewicz's attack on peace, love and understanding.

As for Vonnegut selling us a "gimcrack religion," Deresiewicz does not understand how most people would comprehend the word "religion." Vonnegut was as pure in his rejection of any philosophical worldview as an anarchist is pure in rejecting government. Vonnegut wanted no edifice of a hymnal or a church. He promised no God in heaven, in fact no heaven at all. He promised no paradise on Earth. He simply asked that people be kinder to each other. Most important, Vonnegut knew--and said so--that even if more of of us became kinder, there was no reason to believe we'd all become kinder. He just asked that we try, at least. That is not religion in any organized sense, and not even religiosity. One cannot deny it is somewhat like the dear Pollyanna, who literary critics long since reduced to a derisive cliche, but Vonnegut's life experiences told him--and his audience--that the world will still be quite mean for some time. The goal should be not to kill ourselves as a species before enough of us learn to be nicer to each other and our planet.

For me, Vonnegut's later novels have a power that built upon the best of his early novels. "Hocus Pocus," "Galapagos," and "Slapstick" are each dystopic, apocalyptic and cataclysmic. The prose whips around like a tornado or hurricane, and beneath the simple sentences are deeply moving philosophical points that would make Proust and Tolstoy smile with respect had they had an opportunity to examine the works as a whole. "Lonesome no more" is the political slogan in "Slapstick" that gives us an understanding of modern anomie that would help any sociology student work his or her way through David Reisman or even Karl Marx. "Galapagos" helps us understand that most species on this planet go extinct, that people die for no cosmic reason, and that having a bigger brain does not make us all that smarter. I love, in "Galapagos," the asterisks next to the name of a person's first appearance in the novel, which means the person will die before the novel ends. It is whimsical, of course, but it is whimsical about life and death, not what we buy in a mall, or what clothes we wear to a party. And let's really be blunt: Vonnegut's books are certainly not about the trivialities that sum up the work of people like Gwendolyn Riley. As for the last of the three books I mention, "Hocus Pocus" is a diary written in fragments of civilization collapsing, from the perspective of someone in middle age who is already tired before the "excrement hit the air conditioning." In "Hocus Pocus," Vonnegut's non-linear writing was perfected, and his disappointment with humanity is at its near pinnacle.

What's really extraordinary about these books is that, throughout it all, Vonnegut is funny. Truly funny. He's funny when he is describing people killing and dying. He's funny when helping us understand how our religions, corporations, governments and ideologies nearly always lead to murder. He's funny in so many ways, but he is deadly serious when he tells us to be nicer to each other.

If there was time, we could discuss "Jailbird" and "Deadeye Dick", which have a sadness that exposes the banal voyeurism of Joyce Carol Oates. But I do want to say that Deresiewicz has the usual disdain for the economic left of many a cultural liberal who inhabit The Nation's literary pages. It is clear he sees any book that attacks wealth as hackneyed or trite, which is why he fails to see the brilliance of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." "Rosewater" is one of the greatest attacks on both the practical power and totemic power of money one can ever read in any novel. The structure of the novel foretells Vonnegut's use of simple language to say deep and challenging things. But, in content, "Rosewater" channels the early 20th Century economist Thorstein Veblen, Thurman Arnold and also Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons" (itself an amazing novel too long neglected). Vonnegut helps us understand the original crimes of the wealthy that led to their wealth, and the parasitical lawyers, financiers and others who grab at their money. The book also shines a light on the wealthy folks' progeny, who either grasp and snarl in the privileged world from which they were born, or else suffer from a guilt that leads them to substance abuse or insanity from living in a world which presents them with no limits. I know, Professor Deresiewicz, there is not enough unrequited love in Vonnegut or Tarkington, as in the work of Jane Austen or Henry James. Not enough sex.

Suffice it to say the worthy Vonnegut biography has not yet been written. Suffice it also to say The Nation continues to miss the brilliance of Vonnegut. It is remarkable, however, that The Nation fails to appreciate Vonnegut, who so thoroughly understood the reckless power of the American Empire and what Harold Laski called America's "business civilization." Sadly, The Nation's attacks on Vonnegut are now systemic because one doubts Deresiewicz went back in the archives to see the negative reviews of most of the Vonnegut novels after the mid-1970s. He just "knew" what to say, and knew he agreed with it. It's what he's heard for years at oh so many literary cocktail parties in Manhattan and elsewhere. Still, there is something within his review that causes him to doubt if he is fully correct, and that perhaps should make us hopeful. But Vonnegut would be the first to say, Hope is a dangerous illusion.

So it goes. Hi ho.


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