Kurt Vonnegut’s latest book, and, according to its author, his last, is almost impossible to appreciate without extensive knowledge of his previous work. As far as I can tell, this is deliberate and it can be considered a flaw or a virtue depending on one’s view of writing in general and Kurt Vonnegut in particular. But one thing is clear: if you’re not familiar with the characters who have populated Vonnegut’s writing since, say, 1965 – including Vonnegut himself and his fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout – Timequake will seem to be nothing more than a few salvaged fragments from an abandoned project glued together with autobiographical sketches and aphorisms. Timequake One, as Vonnegut calls the original book, seems to have started out as just another Vonnegut novel, but Timequake Two, as he calls the finished product, has been reconceived as the legend to the Vonnegut map, less a final act than a curtain call, a thin rubber band holding together the braided but distinct strands of a 45-year career and a 75-year life.
In a pair of recent articles in the New York Observer, headed ‘Twilight of the Great Literary Beasts’, Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace lament the decline in quality of the work produced by America’s greatest living straight white male novelists, citing Bellow, Mailer, Roth and Updike. Neither mentions Kurt Vonnegut, even though Wallace goes so far as to call the trio of Roth, Mailer and Updike ‘the great narcissists’, a title to which Vonnegut has a far better claim. What Bellow and the narcissists have is a host of prizes, which Vonnegut certainly can’t claim – a Nobel and a trophy case full of National Book Awards and Pulitzers – but Vonnegut has one thing they don’t: a cult following.
In the extended family of American writers Vonnegut is the crazy uncle, the old codger full of wit and wisdom and more than a little bullshit. Take the Prologue to Timequake: ‘I have pretended in this book I will still be alive for the clambake in 2001. In Chapter 46, I imagine myself as still alive in 2010. Sometimes I say I’m in 1996, where I really am, and sometimes I say I am in the midst of a rerun following a timequake, without making clear distinctions between the two situations. I must be nuts.’ Forget the last sentence: that’s just Vonnegut trying to throw us off the trail. The key word here is ‘pretend’. Pretending is something children do: writers create, or invent, or forment; at the very least, they imagine. Vonnegut’s use of the children’s ‘nuts’ is characteristic of the regressive urge that informs all his work: more important, it is a pointed reference to the infantilised position he finds himself in as the titular object of the Cult of Vonnegut.
Cult status is a trap. In Vonnegut’s case, a very lucrative one. He’s sold millions of books, but what he’s been denied is legitimacy, or, more to the point, influence. Cult writers almost always have a political or social or aesthetic agenda – this agenda being what keeps them out of the mainstream – and Vonnegut’s pet peeves aren’t hard to find. He’s railed against violence in general and war in particular, against the way technology has reduced the ability of human beings to find meaningful work, against our treatment of the young, the elderly, the poor and the otherwise ‘useless’ members of society, against greed, against television, against semi-colons (he says they don’t mean anything), and against the lionising of literary figures – both writers and their creations. Fans and critics have long noted and praised his opinions (praise which seems always to include the phrase ‘Vintage Vonnegut!’), and ignored him. It’s not that the fans don’t believe what he has to say. They just don’t seem to care.
Perhaps that’s to be expected. Another of the distinguishing characteristics of cult writers is monomania. Charles Bukowski’s was sex and drugs, Hunter S. Thompson’s is drugs and sex. Kurt Vonnegut’s obsession, the single theme which has dominated every one of his books from Player Piano in 1952 to Timequake today, is the futility of human action, so it’s hardly surprising that his followers have chosen not to act on his words. ‘Followers’ doesn’t seem too strong a term, for Vonnegut’s stories have always read like religious parables. The prototypical Vonnegut hero, from Malachi Constant to Eliot Rosewater to Dwayne Hoover to Rudy Waltz, attempts to achieve the serenity of the Buddha while facing the torments that beset Christ. He is a cog in the wheel of fate, and what makes some of the novels tragic and some comic is whether or not he learns to accept his powerlessness. The truly tragic heroes are the ones who don’t learn, but there have been fewer and fewer of these in his recent novels. Mostly they rush headlong into oblivion, into unknowing or, more simply, into death.
Maybe that’s the reason Vonnegut himself has always struck me as the real tragic figure in his stories: he is the one who seems not to have given up – else why continue to write? Though he was raised and remains an atheist, he longs for the simplicity of belief. In Timequake he writes of a friend’s loss of faith: ‘I thought that was too much to lose.’ He also reports that one of the few literary quotations which still obsesses him is Christ’s ‘Who is it they say I am?’ Writers who are merely great – Mailer and Bellow and Roth and Updike – write stories which become part of our dreams, but cult writers are themselves dreamed about. I would like to think that some writers could be both, and I would suggest Vonnegut as a likely candidate, but it has not yet happened, and I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that he is still alive. Perhaps, as he insists repeatedly in Timequake, things will be better when he’s dead; perhaps his followers will stop searching his books for some clue as to how their guru lived, and simply read them. But he seems to doubt it.
In fact, he has tried to provide those clues himself. In his Introduction to Palm Sunday (1981), he told his readers that his most recent effort was ‘a marvellous new literary form’. ‘This book,’ he wrote, ‘combines the tidal power of a major novel with the bone-rattling immediacy of front-line journalism – which is old stuff now, God knows, God knows. But I have also intertwined the flashy enthusiasms of musical theatre, the lethal left jab of the short story, the sachet of personal letters, the oompah of American history, and oratory in the bow-wow style.’ As it happens, Palm Sunday is an autobiographical collage, at once a dressed-up collection of ephemera and a fiery, funny polemic from a writer on the threshold of old age. A single continuous narrative – the story of Vonnegut’s life – proceeds via a series of detours: book reviews, commencement speeches, letters private and public, and a few borrowed texts.
What emerges, especially about Vonnegut’s early years, is at once evocative and blandly general: there is the happiness of an ‘Edwardian’ childhood lived in pre-Depression splendour in Indianapolis (1922-29), the sudden descent into genteel squalor following the Crash (1929-40), a couple of tries at college (1940-43, first at Cornell, then at the Carnegie Institute of Technology), and a stint in the US Infantry which culminated in his capture at the Battle of the Bulge (1943-45). Then, in a period of not quite two years, Vonnegut witnessed and miraculously survived the fire bombing of Dresden, learned of his mother’s suicide, saw the end of World War Two, re-entered university and married for the first time. Five years later, at the age of 28, after working as a reporter in Chicago and a PR man in Schenectady, New York, he published his first short story. He then abandoned PR to write fiction on a freelance basis – those were the happy days before television, he reminds us, when a writer could support himself and his family just by writing short stories – and two years later, in 1952, he published his first novel, Player Piano.
He published ten more books before Palm Sunday and, as a result, his readers were already familiar with these biographical details. Not that Vonnegut had indulged in autofiction; rather, he’d taken up the habit of including short prefaces to his novels. These prefaces, as unadorned as the novels were fantastic, provided brief bulletins on Vonnegut’s life, and suggested certain real-world antecedents to the fictions they preceded. In fact, the evolution of these prefaces is as important as the novels themselves. The first appeared, appropriately enough, in his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. In his next book, the Preface had grown noticeably longer, and was simply labelled ‘Chapter One’. That book was Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the most autobiographical of his novels – Vonnegut uses the first chapter to demarcate what’s made up from what’s real – and it was also the novel which made his reputation, and began the cult of Kurt in earnest. It shouldn’t have been surprising when, flush with his first real success in two decades of writing, and also wary of it, he simply moved himself into the storyline of his next novel, Breakfast of Champions. But whether or not critics were surprised, they were certainly outraged, and after that Vonnegut moved out of his stories and back to his prefaces. The move could be seen as conciliatory, but Vonnegut is cleverer than that; despite the minimising label ‘preface’ or ‘prologue’, these notes are integral to his novels. Their primary purpose, and the purpose of Palm Sunday – in essence, an entire book of prefaces, prologues and author’s notes – is to nip the growing cult in the bud. But despite his efforts to clear up the relationship between his art and his life, to expose himself as shyster, not shaman, as a simple storyteller rather than a maker of fables, the adulation with which he and his books were greeted only continued to grow.
And so, by the time Vonnegut published Palm Sunday, he had been elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and received several honorary degrees (including one from the University of Chicago, which had unanimously rejected the master’s thesis he submitted in 1947) – and his primary readers were high-school students. Palm Sunday depicts a writer whose books are burned by schools (is it any wonder the kids wanted to read them?) and who is invited to speak at fund-raising occasions for the American Civil Liberties Union, a writer privileged to provide introductions to books by Céline as well as by Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding (famous comedians of his youth), but who wrote of Slaughterhouse-Five: ‘The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person ... One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.’ What emerges in Palm Sunday is the same struggle Vonnegutas-character put before Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions, and which Vonnegutas-author puts before him one last time in Timequake, and that is the struggle, for an artist, between celebrity and anonymity, between vanity and purity, between, in the most loaded senses of the words, enthralment and freedom. In Palm Sunday Vonnegut seems to think that it is still a choice, and at the book’s close he coyly says: ‘I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.’ In Timequake he is deliberately more juvenile, more bitter and more to the point: for some writers, the choice isn’t theirs to make. I ‘never asked to be born in the first place’ is how he puts it, and it seems clear he is referring not only to himself, but to the figure his followers have made of him.
It was only when I reread Palm Sunday that I finally understood why Vonnegut’s attempts to demystify himself, and so disband his cult, failed so miserably. With all his fastidious charting of the details of his professional life, fleshed out by the tiniest snippets of autobiography, Vonnegut seemed to be creating a smokescreen, one that engulfed both reader and writer. Thus, the personal details which could be glimpsed became less interesting than those it was assumed Vonnegut was hiding. In book after book, he told his readers precisely what his books meant to him, but what he never said was why he wrote them, and it was the thing not said which became of paramount importance. It is only now, 16 years after Palm Sunday, that we learn the truth: Vonnegut wasn’t holding anything back. His is a life clearly divided in two – before he started writing, and after – and what came after clearly is his life. The why, in other words, is also the what, which is perhaps the thing he was trying to tell us all along. From Palm Sunday:
So here I sit on the fourth floor of a town house on the East Side of New York City, the Capital of the World, with a report card on the past thirty years of my life – signed by myself and tacked to the wall. I look at all those grades, some high, some low, and I think that I am like the compulsive gambler who borrowed so much money from me and who could not pay me back: I could not help myself.
The task of unboxing and assembling the vast puzzle of narrative and meaning Vonnegut has created in 19 books seems pointless. How many times does he visit the planet Trafalmadore (three, I think)? How many books feature the made-up towns of Ilium, New York (again, three) and Midland City, Ohio (six at the last count)? Why are two different secretaries in two different novels (Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions) named Francine Pefko, and how is Kilgore Trout, according to Timequake, still alive in 2001, when his tombstone in Breakfast of Champions says that he died in 1981? I leave these and a thousand more riddles to other scholars or cultists, because, like Vonnegut, I cannot imagine the usefulness in doing such things when I know that any attention I receive will be sweetly faked, and that ears will not prick up until I begin to speculate again on Vonnegut’s life and motivations.
No writer I can think of has been more diligent or more successful at pretending, despite what he describes in Timequake as a limited cache of tools: ‘26 phonetic symbols, ten numbers and about eight punctuation marks’. This disparaging of language aside, Vonnegut has proved endlessly, almost relentlessly creative in using it to tell new stories in new ways. He was the first novelist to try to demystify the relationship between author and story within his texts, to suggest that stories, whether children’s cartoons or religious tracts, are nothing more than the product of individual imaginations, but this and all his other formal innovations have gone unnoticed, lost somewhere between the glazed-eyed worship of his fans and the condescension of his critics (‘Vintage Vonnegut!’ indeed). And so, with each successive story, Vonnegut proved even more relentless in yoking his various inventions to that single theme of futility. His final novels, by which I mean the novels written since Palm Sunday, are as stylistically perfect as any written in the past twenty years, and they are also, for me, almost unbearable to read, because of the sense of hopelessness – perhaps helplessness is a better word – which resonates in every line.
Vonnegut named the new literary form he was creating in Palm Sunday a ‘blivet’ – ‘two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag’ – but its codicil, Timequake, is something less than that, something, really, like a trivet. I’m thinking here of the Midwestern variety, which in contrast to the simplicity of its function tends to be ornate in design and decoration, wrought iron twisted into sinewy roosters or weeping willows or old-fashioned locomotives. I call Timequake a ‘trivet’ because its only real use is to the host and not to his diners – to Vonnegut rather than his readers – and for that reason it is, more than any of the others, the book he couldn’t help himself from writing, and that his readers won’t be able to help themselves from reading. And reading into.