Kurt Vonnegut

It's hard to know why the Kurt Vonnegut stories collected in Look at the Birdie were published—literally. The book includes a brief introduction by Vonnegut's friend Sidney Offit, who tells us they may have remained unpublished because "for one reason or another they didn't satisfy Kurt" but otherwise gives no reason why Vonnegut's dissatisfaction needed to be overridden and this book made available. No dates of composition are given so that the reader might judge the stories in the context of Vonnegut's development as a writer, no editorial discussion of that development is provided. The best Offit can do is suggest that the "stories selected for this collection are reminiscent of the entertainments of that era [presumably the 1950s, although Vonnegut continued to write short stories into the 1960s]—so easy to read, so straightforward as to seem simplistic in narrative technique, until the reader thinks about what the author is saying." This is not much of an endorsement of work by a writer most of whose other fiction surely did ultimately transcend "entertainments of that era" to become anything but "simplistic in narrative technique."

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." It could be argued 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 not already confirmed Vonnegut fans. The rave reviews accorded to Look at the Birdie by some of those fans only lead me to believe that something like this will happen, since no one coming to this collection without much previous acquaintance with Vonnegut's fiction could conclude it is the work of an important writer.

Despite the scholarly unfriendliness of the book's presentation, it does have value for a broader critical perspective on Vonnegut's work. It demonstrates that Vonnegut was correct in resisting the publication of his "magazine fiction," not just in this miscellany of unpublished/rejected stories, but also most of those collected in Bagombo Snuff Box (a second cut among the published stories), as well as, quite frankly, many of those to be found in Welcome to the Monkey House, the initially sanctioned collection of the magazine stories that appeared as Vonnegut rose to fame in the late 1960s. Vonnegut was not very good at short stories, except insofar as he was able to produce the kind of story the commercial magazines wanted and get many of them published. 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.

It took Vonnegut a while, however, to locate his talent. In addition to the lackluster quality of most of his magazine fiction, his first novel, Player Piano, is mostly warmed-over Huxley and Orwell. Along with the stories, what it illustrates most of all is that Vonnegut was not a very competent writer when employing a conventional third-person narrator. The narrator of this novel is more or less omniscient, informing us, for example, that the novel's protagonist, Paul Proteus, "was the most important, brilliant person in Ilium, the manager of the Ilium Works, though only thirty-five. He was tall, thin, nervous, and dark, with the gently good looks of his long face distorted by dark-rimmed glasses." At times, it ventures the central-consciousness or "free indirect" approach:

    As Paul walked out to his car in the pale March sunlight, he realized that Bud Calhoun would have a mouse alarm designed--one a cat could understand--by the time he got back to the office. Paul sometimes wondered if he wouldn't have been more content in another period of history, but the rightness of Bud's being alive now was beyond question. Bud's mentality was one that had been remarked upon as being peculiarly American since the nation had been born--the restless, erratic insight and imagination of a gadgeteer. This was the climax, or close to it, of generations of Bud Calhouns, with almost all of American industry integrated into one stupendous Rube Goldberg machine.

The narrative of Player Piano is a consistently linear one, and the narrator hews very closely to Paul Proteus's perspective throughout. It makes for a very dull reading experience, even duller than 1984, which similarly employs plain language and transparent storytelling but which employs plot devices so overwrought and melodramatic it at least arouses some sensational fascination. Player Piano is a rather tepid satire of America's fetishizing of technology and its meritocratic enablers, a theme that seems apropos for Vonnegut but that in this novel is not adequately enlivened.

What Player Piano lacks is the presence of that narrative voice readers eventually will come to recognize as Kurt Vonnegut—or at least "Kurt Vonnegut," a fictional stand-in for the author who otherwise takes on the author's biographical identity. This voice first announces itself as the author in Slaughterhouse-Five, but earlier first-person narratives such as Mother Night and Cat's Cradle show Vonnegut shrugging off the confines of conventional third-person storytelling, both in the manipulation of point of view and the stylistic variety that brings, and in abandoning the requirement of strictly linear narrative. It seems to me that this combination of an emancipated narrative voice and more casual plot development characterizes Vonnegut's most signature work, and while it is missing from the early fiction, it does begin to be discernible in his second novel, The Sirens of Titan.

The Sirens of Titan begins in an oracular voice not at all attached to any particular character, unafraid to signal its detached viewpoint:

    Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.

    But mankind wasn't always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have any access to the puzzle boxes within them.

    They could not name even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul

    Gimcrack religions were big business.

    Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward--pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what creation was all about.

This is not quite Vonnegut speaking to us in his own voice about his own war experience in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, but it is a step in that direction. The narrator does not explicitly reveal himself as Kurt Vonnegut or otherwise draw attention to his status as the story's creator, but he clearly occupies a space outside the tale itself, apart from the characters' view of things. As the story proper commences, there is no attempt to "inhabit" the world view of the characters, merely to describe them, to delineate their actions and report their conversations. The narrative voice continues to hover above the invoked world, but never finally departs from the role of omniscient narrator so thoroughly as to become explicitly metafictional, as in Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions.

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. That it is a work of science fiction perhaps partly explains the loosening of constraint--certainly few people at the time expected an adherence to decorum from the genre--but I doubt that many hardcore SF advocates would now cite The Sirens of Titan as a representative science fiction novel from the period. Too much of it is played for laughs, too little effort is made to fashion a story and create characters that can each be perceived as more than obvious artifice, a vehicle for the author's whimsical notions.

If it would be nice to know how "all the different kinds of truth fit together," this does not mean that those truths add up to some final knowable truth—or if it does, it's the truth that the truth is hard to find, since it must be filtered through the brain of such a fallible creature as a human being. Winston Niles Rumfoord offers a version of the truth in his invented religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, which is that the search for truth is futile in a universe governed by a God who doesn't care, and the novel's ultimate revelation is that human history has been guided by an effort by the planet Tralfamadore to supply one of its space travellers with a spare part (Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China are messages to this traveller, stranded on Saturn's mood Titan). There are those who think Vonnegut is a sentimental writer, or that he wrote on behalf of some amorphous version of liberal humanism, but it seems to me that such readers willfully overlook the fact that Vonnegut ultimately writes out of a profoundly disenchanted view of the human species and consistently represents existence as finally meaningless. Whatever suggestion we might indirectly derive from Vonnegut's work that we should change our behavior, that human society might be reformed, msut be received with this context in mind.

Mother Night is probably the most sustained portrayal of moral ambiguity and the elusiveness of truth among Vonnegut's novels. Anyone who thinks Vonnegut offered simplistic and unequivocal moral judgments in his fiction has not taken sufficient account of this work. Is Howard Campbell a Nazi collaborator or an American spy who helped defeat the Nazis? If he is morally culpable, is it through active sympathy with fascism or a kind of moral laziness? Which would be worse? Is he finally just an opportunist? Is his final act of hanging himself a confession of his culpability, a gesture of self-loathing, or just another implicit plea for moral absolution? I don't think any of these questions are decisively answered by the novel, however much we might want to take it as an essentially political book indicting all sides in the mid-20th century geopolitical miasma.

Vonnegut has only increased the moral ambiguity of this novel by making it a first-person narrative (albeit "edited" by "Kurt Vonnegut"). Mother Night is certainly not the first novel to take advantage of the fact that an extended first-person narrative can induce reader sympathy for even the most morally questionable characters through the narrator's voice and implicit manipulation of perspective, but it inevitably does work in this way. Vonnegut is able to invest Howard W. Campbell, Jr. with a lively enough style and an air of sufficient self-questioning that we come to believe his attempt to reckon with his actions is sincere and perhaps that he deserves some lenience. This only makes it harder to determine the extent to which Campbell is telling the complete truth and the degree to which the proper response to his life story should be disgust and disquiet.

Yet another level of complication is added to the novel by the metafictional editorial apparatus through which Campbell's narrative is presented to us. One could view the "Editor's Introduction" explaining how the "confessions of Howard Campbell , Jr." (in its American edition)  took the form in which we find it as simply a perfunctory device needed to account for the existence of the narrative—Campbell is dead—but in identifying himself as the editor, Vonnegut calls immediate attention to Mother Night as a fiction, a gesture that would seem to foreground "truth" as an already qualified goal. Of course, "qualified" does not mean nonexistent; fiction can reveal truth in its way, even if it is fundamentally a "lie." Vonnegut in the Editor's Introduction indirectly affirms this role in commenting on Howard Campbell's motivations for lying:

. . .To say that he was a playwright is to offer an even harsher warning to the reader, for no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions onto something as grotesquely artificial as a stage.

    And, now that I've said that about lying, I will risk the opinion that lies told for the sake of artistic effect--in the theater, for instance, and in Campbell's confessions, perhaps--can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.

Vonnegut (the author Vonnegut, not this fictional editor) here openly associates the "lies told for the sake of artistic effect" that might be attributed to Howard W. Campbell with the "lie" that is Mother Night itself. While one could question the extent to which Campbell's lies—if so they are—are primarily for "artistic effect," the "truth" that emerges from our reading of his confessions as the novel Mother Night is the same. One might even conclude that this truth can indeed be captured in what Vonnegut (in the actual introduction appended to the 1966 reprint of the book) calls the moral of the story, that "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," but this statement is much less obvious in its application than might at first appear. Pretending to be a Nazi while actually spying for the Allies does not seem a morally hazardous enterprise, however physically hazardous it might prove to be. Pretending to be a reformed Nazi is a more serious offense, but there really isn't much evidence from his confessions that Campbell actually remains a Nazi sympathizer.

To me, the most cogent interpretation of Howard W. Campbell's plight is that he really doesn't know who he is and that the various pretenses in which he engages is a manifestation of this indefinite sense of identity. If he is morally blameworthy, it is because he seems most interested in maintaining his own comfort. His actions are perhaps motivated by moral laziness, which leads him to avoid disruptive change, but this does not make him a monster, just as it prevents him from being a hero. It makes him, in fact, a fairly representative human being, who, like most people, can't really be condemned for acting in ways it is in his nature to act. This portrayal of human behavior is a consistent feature of Vonnegut's work, summed up in his most famous catch-phrase: So it goes.

Cat's Cradle might be a more transparent moral fable, but the burden of its message isn't likely to be congenial to those seeking inspiration or reassuring bromides. While the novel does allegorically reinforce a view of the world in which scientific/technological overreach threatens to destroy the world and the proper response to this threat is to live simply and in humility, such overreach is not easily combated and living simply is no doubt an unreachable ideal. To this extent, Vonnegut's popularity among younger readers in the 1960s and 1970s has always seemed somewhat puzzling. Vonnegut was more or less adopted as the novelist of the counterculture, but while his fiction certainly indicts the reigning socio-technological "establishment," it does so from such a disenchanted view of human nature it's hard to see the appeal to more idealistic readers who might think it can still be reformed. Perhaps the suggestion that we should get over all our hang-ups and love one another because the world is a cesspool might indeed be the ultimate countercultural statement, but in retrospect it surely doesn't seem the message to motivate a cultural revolution.

Of course, one quality of Vonnegut's work that certainly must partly explain its appeal is its humor, which on the one hand somewhat brightens the underlying gloom, giving the novels a tone of melancholy rather than outright despair, but on the other hand really only reinforces the portrayal of a human reality that is laughably impaired. Mother Night, seemingly his most straightforwardly serious novel (no role for beings from Tralfamador, no violations of the space-time continuum), is not an exception to the predominantly comic vision of Vonnegut's fiction, even if, given the subject, comedy does not seem a very suitable approach. Indeed, it is no doubt the way in which in this novel, as Klinkowitz puts it, Vonnegut "mixed the loftiest of moral thoughts with the most vulgar forms of slapstick comedy" (The Vonnegut Effect) that explains why his fiction was initially labelled "black humor." The characterization of, for example, white supremacist "The Reverend Doctor Lionel Jason David Jones , D.D.S., D.D." (publisher of The White Christian Minuteman) and his associates as a group something akin to The Three Stooges is both an audacious aesthetic strategy and disarmingly entertaining. In this way, Vonnegut's work is consistent with much "postmodern" American fiction of the 60s and 70s, which does not shrink from a comic treatment of all human behavior.

In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut returns to a comedic perspective on religion, supplementing it with a story about the end of the world as we know it. "Bokononism," a religion created by a renegade leader on a Caribbean island, seems a somewhat more thought-out version of The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, and Vonnegut seems to be using it for a similar purpose, as a proposed substitute for traditional religions that encourage people to focus their attention on gaining the next world rather than making the most of this one. Since human beings appear to have an inherent need to take instructions from an established authority, perhaps a "spiritual" authority that tells the least harmful lies possible—and that acknowledges it is telling such lies—is the best we can hope for. Bokononism is ultimately a self-negating religion that is both a recognition of the limitations of the human species and itself a manifestation of these limitations. That we would need such a religion-in-place-of-religion in the first place is a pretty sad commentary on us, although Vonnegut makes it overtly comic, as evidenced for one by the wacky names he gives to certain key elements of Bokononism: "foma"; "granfalloon"; "wampeter."

Vonnegut also in Cat's Cradle again uses a first-person narrator whose presence as filter and arranger has to be reckoned with. In this case, "Jonah" is himself a convert to Bokononism, so of course the "worldview" associated with such a way of thinking conditions both the tale and the telling. The story of how the various characters in the novel happened to come together on a remote island in a series of events that leads to the catastrophe that ensues after the accidental unleashing of "ice-nine" is a specific instance of the Bokononist concept of the interrelatedness of things. As character and narrator, Jonah develops from being more or less a passive observer to becoming an active participant in these events, mirroring his progressive immersion in and commitment to the axioms of Bokononism. Since these axioms are finally deliberate if benign lies, a careful reader would want to consider, as with Howard Campbell, the degree to which one should invest fully in Jonah's account, although I don't think it can be said that he emerges seeming more admirable than he deserves or less forthcoming than he should be. It might be said that the novel itself, like all fiction, is a benign lie, encouraging us through its narrator to come up with our own alternative to the ways of thinking that lead only to misery and destruction.

Howard W. Campbell and Jonah allow Vonnegut to explore the possibilities of voice and the role of subjectivity in fiction. In Slaughterhouse-Five, this will become Kurt Vonnegut speaking in his own dynamic voice and exploring the subjectivity of fiction itself.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)