iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #59: Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is my third time through on Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel. Vonnegut is my favorite author and undoubtedly the one who had the biggest impact on me. I read all of his novels and most of his published work between the ages of 15 and 21, so I hit him at just the right time. Vonnegut’s skepticism, his anger, and his deconstruction of widely held beliefs let me know that I wasn’t the only person having blasphemous, sacrilegious thoughts about God and Uncle Sam.

But because I was at a susceptible age when I first encountered Vonnegut, I am always a little apprehensive about diving back in. What if I discover that Vonnegut wasn’t the revolutionary, incendiary figure that I still venerate today?

Nevertheless I have reread quite a few of the novels, and the results are quite interesting. Some of my favorites seem to dim with maturity, while others that I ranked in the middle or rearguard have become more valued. Cat’s Cradle started to seem tedious the second time through, whereas God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Deadeye Dick seemed much better crafted than I gave them credit for. My favorite Vonnegut novel is thus constantly in flux and will be for the rest of my life I suppose.

I read Vonnegut on my own in high school after an intellectual rival of mine told me about it. (I was that kind of kid, I couldn’t stand thinking any of my friends might be better-read than I was.) While I enjoyed the unconventionality, the humor, and the brazen strangeness of the book, I was undoubtedly too young to truly get Vonnegut’s central thesis.

A college course on American authors really allowed me to see Vonnegut’s fear of the power of narrative, it’s ability to convince us of things that are dangerous and untrue. It was the best experience I had as an English major in college, going through Vonnegut’s carefully laid-out argument against traditional stories. Vonnegut constantly eludes to the Cinderella fairy tale, war movies, or the Gospels of Christ, to show how these narratives teach the wrong lessons and serve more to keep people under control than anything else.

This time I read Slaughter-house Five on the Kindle, which I think possibly might have diminished the experience a little bit. This reading found me more impressed than entertained. I suppose it’s hard to be surprised and delighted three times by the same thing. Still, Vonnegut’s commitment to his anti-narrative stance is impressive. Vonnegut’s story, of the WWII POW Billy Pilgrim’s coming “unstuck in time” due to his traumatic experiences during the bombing of Dresden, doesn’t really come to an end. Nor does it really begin. In the phenomenal first chapter, Vonnegut introduces the idea that anti-war novels are ineffectual, that stories about war do more to propagate it than end it, and that the story form in and of itself is dangerous. This is why he tells the reader upfront pretty much everything that will happen in the course of the novel, from Billy’s abduction to Tralfamadore to his death at the hands of an assassin in 1976.

Technically, the book never makes it to 1976, at least not the way readers would expect. We never see Edgar Derby shot for stealing a tea kettle either, but we’ve heard it so many times that its omission can go unnoticed.

Where does the book end? Well, according to the Tralfamadorian concept of time, all events occur at once, and could only have occurred in that way. So there is no end, no beginning, just a series of moments, carefully chosen, all adding up to one arresting image.

 

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Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #100: Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

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Before I discuss the book, let me take a moment to comment upon the cover. Specifically, whose idea was it? And how did that photoshoot transpire? Seeing the whole picture splayed out like that lessens the silliness some, but when I just saw the part of it on the front I couldn’t help but think of how it looked like Kurt Vonnegut’s failed attempt at modeling. Kurt, no one’s going to look sexy wearing that, least of all you, with that patently unsexy look you purposefully cultivated. That would be unappealing enough if it didn’t look like a black-and-white photograph that was allowed to soak up the nicotine from Vonnegut’s cigarettes for a couple decades. When Vonnegut graded his own work, onlyHappy Birthday, Wanda June received a lesser grade, so perhaps this was intentional on his part, a means of shooing away potential readers. I guess it makes some sense for it to be a snapshot of him, being the closest he ever came to writing an autobiography. Whatever the case may be, do you now understand why I put this one off until last? I kept seeing that tacky cover and I had no option but to judge it based solely upon that.

I’m glad for that, now that I’ve read it. Palm Sunday reads like Vonnegut gone (or going) senile, repeating himself over and over again, yet in enough control of his mind to remind you of better books and better days. Only the piece which recounts generation upon generation of his family history stands as worthless. The rest, though, minus being repetitive, is respectable to the point that I don’t rightly see the point in poking holes. In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut is having a conversation with his readers. It borders on the mundane at times, but that part feels honest. Like he says at one point, authors are best when they’re granted time to sit down and write. Ask them to come up with magic on the spot and you’ll only get cheap parlor tricks. Palm Sunday isundoubtedly the product of many hours worth of work, yet it never feels like it. This is Vonnegut on cruise control, using the opportunity to tell you the story of the sights and sounds you pass. And, truth be told, I’m okay with that. It seems like the perfect way to wrap up my reading of Vonnegut. It’s as if Vonnegut decided to play himself out, relying mostly upon familiar notes, but working in just enough new parts to make me miss him when he’s gone and wish for an encore that now will never come.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #65: Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

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Not all of the fourteen stories in Look at the Birdie are a complete loss. A couple look like “Harrison Bergeron” compared to the others. But a couple hits among a plethora of misses isn’t enough for me to up Look at the Birdie from a 1 to a 2.

For the most part, the stories contained within its covers aren’t just disappointing, like most of the unpublished material the publishers dredged up. It’s also lacking in the level of wit one expects from Vonnegut.

As in Fever Pitch, I struggled to even find attempts at humor, let alone successful ones. These were rare instances of Vonnegut telling it straight and, let me tell you, he doesn’t fare well.

No differently than the other posthumous collections, this is only for Vonnegut completionists such as myself. Trust me, there’s a reason Vonnegut left these unpublished.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #27: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Gavin Extence has written a superb young adult novel dealing with some rather mature themes: secular humanism, Kurt Vonnegut, growing cannabis, and death/end of life decisions. I think this may turn out to be my favorite novel of the summer.

Alex Woods, our narrator, is 17 when we start and all of the action of the story has happened. Alex is returning to England from Continental Europe with the ashes of his neighbor Isaac Peterson and a glove compartment full of marijuana. Alex is detained at customs and brought in for questioning. From this point, Alex tells the amazing story of his life and his friendship with the reclusive Mr. Peterson.

Alex is already famous by the time we are introduced. At the age of 10, he survived being hit by a meteorite, was in a coma for several weeks and then developed epilepsy, which caused him to miss school for most of a year. He is the only child of a single mother who runs her own shop and reads tarot cards for clients. Alex is drawn to math and sciences, particularly astrophysics and neurology.  Unfortunately, bullies are drawn to Alex for these same reasons. Alex’s path and Mr. Peterson’s cross as a result of a bullying incident. Peterson is an American veteran of the Vietnam War who writes a lot of letters for Amnesty International and whose favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut. Over time, a strange but beautiful friendship develops between the two. Alex matures, learns to manage his epilepsy, and actively pursues his interests as well as action that seems right to him. I found him to be a thoroughly interesting and admirable character, although I suspect that those who are more politically conservative might find him to be immoral or, at the very least, misguided.

An overarching theme is about us and the universe — is there a God? Where do we fit in? Can we know the universe? I like that the title is The Universe Versus Alex Woods and not the other way around — that it’s not Alex who is trying to mess with the universe, but rather the universe seems to have taken on Alex. Throwing a meteorite at his head is only one example. He and his mother have no idea who his father is; he is a target for bullies; he has epilepsy. Yet for the most part, Alex faces it all in a calm, rational way. The one exception, when he calls a bully an especially offensive word in front of the headmaster, makes him feel powerful in the short run but is regretted in the long run. Alex is patient and a planner, and this serves him well (although it makes him seem odd and is sometimes frustrating to those close to him).

I think what I find most impressive about the novel is that while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the same view of life and the universe as Alex, I understand why he thinks as he does. I can’t help but like him. Gavin Extence does a marvelous job of presenting Alex’s point of view in a reasonable and convincing manner. The writing is humorous and intelligent, and would appeal to the high school crowd. Mature themes and some crude language might make it inappropriate for those younger.

 

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #43: A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

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At long last, a collection that seems worthy of the Vonnegut name. Robert Scholes said of Vonnegut that he put bitter coatings on sugar pills, but A Man Without a Country reads as the opposite. In his old age, Vonnegut had come to find the world at large circumspect, to say the least. He considered himself “a man without a country,” as the title suggests, and was of the belief that soon no one would have a world, much less a country, to call home, that we were more or less raping the earth and that it won’t be long before it dies from the wounds it has incurred over the years. Relentless though his bleak outlook is, he kept the book from collapsing under the weight of his own negativity with a heaping helping of humor.

Humor and profundity. In place of a review, I almost want to rattle off a series of quotes from the book, as A Man Without a Country contains some of the best of his career. Anytime the book started to become mired in that aforementioned negativity, he would pull a line like this out of his back pocket: “Life is no way to treat an animal.” Or this: “A saint is a person who behaves decently in a shockingly indecent society.” Though the resentment he appears to have for nearly all of society still shows, he words his stance so flawlessly that it’s a challenge not to come over to his way of thinking, if only for a second. Which is to say he’s akin to that relative of yours who goes off on political tirades, just far more eloquent and persuasive.

Really, Vonnegut is like family, or at least what I wish my family were like. If my dad’s Fox-News-inspired ramblings were done in the style of Vonnegut, he might actually run the risk of converting me into a nutjob like himself. It’s a shame Vonnegut never ran for office himself because I don’t doubt he would’ve at least made a race out of it, if not won. Unless, that is, his bid were considered a grand joke, as Stephen Colbert’s was. Whether or not you fully agree with his tenets, Vonnegut was nothing if not sincere, and though he believed power to be a corruptive force, I think he would’ve been immune to its effects. Vonnegut was never not honest, and that’s what I admire most about him and his work.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #42: Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

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Look, I get that collections like this of unpublished works are meant to be a fan-service of sorts, as when an author dies it’s all his fans have left to hope for. More often than not, though, the end result is misguided at best. There’s a distinct reason the author tucked these away where he likely hoped no one would ever find them. This, and the other posthumous collections of Vonnegut’s unpublished work, are a testament to that.

As is his son’s introduction, given it was arguably the highlight of the entire collection. Granted, there’s a curio or two that is worth reading simply for what it is, such as a letter he wrote to his family about his experiences as a POW, but that’s where there appeal begins and ends. They’re compelling on the basis of novelty alone.

Yet much of the book doesn’t even have that going for it. For instance, the title story feels like quintessential Vonnegut in concept, with a scientist using an electrical field to hold the Devil hostage, but not in execution. Like the rest of the collection, his trademark humor is conspicuously absent.

It, like the collection as a whole, is a novelty and nothing more. More Vonnegut for his writing-starved fans. Go into it with that thought process and maybe it’ll surprise you. Otherwise, don’t expect that great a deal.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #30: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

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My feelings may be summed up thusly: the foreword, written by Dave Eggers, was far and beyond the highlight of the book. It, and the chosen pieces of artwork from Vonnegut himself, represent all this book has on offer, besides a series of what Eggers refers to as “mousetrap stories,” which I feel is more apt a metaphor than even he would let on.

With each story, I went in with the expectation that I would be rewarded for my patience, that the “mousetrap” Eggers was referencing was of the variety seen in the board game, the mouse finding itself encaged yet alive, and that he would make of me his willing prisoner. In reality, my only hope was that Stockholm Syndrome would set in and cause a drastic change of opinion.

It, regretfully, did not and the trap revealed itself to be one altogether more ruthless. Vonnegut coerces you into the palm of his hand with the promise of cheese, only for it to be revealed as a mirage and for his hand to squeeze and wrench the life right out of you. He does this with each story, and I continued dumbly along, learning nothing, thinking he wouldn’t, couldn’t crush me with disappointment any more than he already had.

Vonnegut, a member of my so-called “holy trinity,” must have one amidst the bunch worthy of his name, I thought. I was lying to myself, knew it, and yet ignored it as a bunch of poppycock. By the end of the collection, however, I’d settled into the realization that Vonnegut wasn’t suited for the short story format.

He massaged a few worth reading out of that admirable cranium of his, such as “Harrison Bergeron,” but he also produced enough pedestrian efforts to fill more books than Douglas Adams, fellow member of my “holy trinity,” wrote in his lifetime. Publishers will likely continue to compile the remaining odds and ends he left unpublished and thrust them out into the world so his fans, still lamenting his death, can try feebly to resurrect him via the written word.

Moreover, I imagine I’ll continue to be one such fan, reading whatever work of his there is left to be read and damning myself for it as I do. Not every writer can excel in both formats, novel and short story, as Stephen King, the final member of my “holy trinity,” can. Why can’t I accept that and move on from Vonnegut’s short stories and back to his novels, revisit him operating within the format he was clearly most comfortable with?

Is it my completionist attitude? My undying devotion to the man and his writing? Do I take pleasure in the inevitable disappointment each of these collections brings? Or is there another potential factor that I’m overlooking? The answer, as well as what compelled someone to label these stories worth publishing, is a mystery, and one I imagine I’ll never stop pondering over.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.