Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vonnegut, that Zany Sad Guy: And So It Goes

Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life tells the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., story in a way that makes Vonnegut’s life feel like a strangely everyday epic, making Vonnegut, to borrow a term from Russian literature, a hero of his time, someone emblematic of his generation. Vonnegut’s life, lived 1922 to 2007, was touched by the Great Depression (diminished family status), World War II (prisoner of war), the Vietnam War and the 1960s (opposition to the war), and the contradictions of fame and celebrity culture (writing about himself but alleging to want peace and quiet).

Shields draws Vonnegut as a pretty unpleasant guy: he cheated on his wives, didn’t seem to know how to relate to his kids, and created some uncomfortable situations with his business associates. Despite—or maybe, in part, because of?—all that, my high school memories of reading two or three of his novels are a feeling of something zany, something that’s funny, antic, and weird, with a strong dose of desperation. (Credit on “zany”: a big thanks to Mitt Romney for calling Newt Gingrich “zany” last week.)

I read And So It Goes because I wondered if Shields might help explain why I’m so content to leave those high school memories alone, to leave my Vonnegut boxed set on the shelf and not try to finish the books I couldn’t bring myself to finish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And Shields did: he quotes Vonnegut himself on reasons he appeals to a youth market. Here’s a longer version of what Vonnegut said in a 1973 interview with Playboy that is reprinted in William Rodney Allen’s Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut:

…I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.

Shields writes, a little later, that Vonnegut’s books offer young readers “their first exposure to existential despair,” and on the next page he calls Vonnegut “a reluctant adult.” I think I’d be giving myself far too much credit to say I sensed that as a teenager: I certainly wouldn’t say that my thinking in high school was more advanced than Vonnegut’s typical college sophomore (his statement strikes me as ridiculously condescending toward the people who made him rather rich) but I wonder now if Vonnegut’s use of goofy names and science fiction tropes began feeling gimmicky to me even as tender highschooler.

For the record, my favorite Vonnegut book was the non-sci fi Breakfast of Champions, which I read several times in high school, though I remember little beyond character names—who could forget “Kilgore Trout”?—line drawings, a zany darkness, and Trout’s experience coating his feet in plastic by walking in a contaminated body of water. (I confess: I confirmed that last memory using Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature; see page 229.)

Shields’s book covers Vonnegut’s life from his not-so-happy childhood, when he felt overshadowed by his science-oriented brother, through his not-so-happy advanced age, when he liked to sit on a bench near the United Nations with a Lhasa apso named Flour, “doing nothing, just people watching.” The book left me feeling sad about all that not-so-happiness (even if, per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way)… and fully ready, yes, happy, to set aside my Vonnegut books for the duration.

Despite the sadness, I enjoyed reading And So It Goes: I thought Shields did a nice job linking Vonnegut’s individual history to world events. And I particularly enjoyed his chapter on Vonnegut’s time at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop; Shields describes the workshop method and the reasons for Vonnegut’s popularity as a teacher. Another favorite tidbit from the book: Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, who studied Russian literature, selected The Brothers Karamazov for him to read on their honeymoon. What a way to start a marriage!

Disclosure: Thank you very much to publisher Henry Holt for a review copy of And So It Goes.

Up Next: Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Lisa. I just saw this now. I like how you see the biography through the lens of your teenage self. Thought-provoking!