Friday, 17 October 2014

Kurt Vonnegut- Armageddon in Retrospect

 Armageddon in Retrospect

Kurt Vonnegut
 2009 (Posthumous)

“Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors of all time, but I haven't read one of his books in a few years, thanks to running through his most popular novels during my late adolescence. Armageddon in Retrospect, the first of many posthumous collections of material from the prolific postmodern satirist, was a great reminder of how individually brilliant he was, and one that, through its selection of short stories, really gets to the heart of what the great man's work was really about. Though Vonnegut's famous short novels (such as, most obviously, the amazing Slaughterhouse-Five) wandered into the genre of sci-fi on a whim, at the crux of the matter was Vonnegut's own real life experiences during the Second World War; where he was captured as a prisoner of war by the Nazi's and incarcerated in a POW camp in Dresden. While he was there, the allies bombed most of the beautiful city to ruins. As a result, the POW's were sent out by their captors to deal with the thousands of dead bodies. Seems like the kind of thing that might leave a mark on a person.

The collection opens with the transcript of a speech Vonnegut was to deliver on stage in his native Indianapolis, but which he couldn't thanks to inconveniently dying. It's a good speech, entertaining, self-deprecating and poignant, but it's really just there for its importance as probably the last thing he ever wrote. This is followed by a letter written to his family written in 1945, the collection jumping back in time in the appropriate manner of Slaughterhouse-Five's Billy Pilgrim. There's not often the opportunity for posthumous author collection editors to make a clever mark on their work, but whoever put this one together was altogether pretty smart. After that comes an essay entitled Wailing Shall Be In All Streets, a short, direct essay about Vonnegut's time in Dresden. It's powerful, to-the-point, and more directly analytical than the typical style of his fiction.

The rest of the collection is comprised of pieces of short fiction, of varying origin and interest. When I criticise Vonnegut here I don't mean to do so of his writing; that is typically impeccable, full of the confident air of an experienced and masterful writer. As proven by novels like The Sirens of Titan and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (an unrecognised classic, in my opinion), Vonnegut has as wide as an imagination as anyone, hence his regular travails into science fiction. The problem for me with a couple of stories in this collection, such as Great Day and the eponymous Armageddon in Retrospect was that Vonnegut's imagination runs so wild that his characters and plots suffer. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't want to change the man's writing in any way since it's this imagination that allows him to hit his greatest heights, but as a result it's fair to say that some of his stories are a bit messy.

Others are much more entertaining and poignant. Happy Birthday, 1951 is a gem of a short story about a man protecting a young boy during wartime. Just You and Me, Sammy is the best story of the lot (in my opinion, of course), going back to the ruins of Dresden to tell the tale of a group of POW's and their untrustworthy liaison with the guards. Only Vonnegut knew how much of this tale was based on true events and he wrote it as fiction, but the obvious ambiguity adds an intended slice of intrigue, tension and realism that's kept in check by a believable series of events and a great revelatory ending. As far as I'm concerned the absolute best twentieth century US literature emanates from the pen of authors mixing reality with fiction, following the development of a nation through mostly-realistic depictions of its variety of life in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac among others. Armageddon in Retrospect certainly isn't the best of Kurt Vonnegut, and for all I know so far it might not even be the best of his posthumously published work, but regardless it's still sublime stuff thanks to the sheer strength of Vonnegut's voice. This might be naive, but I simply can't imagine anyone not liking (or at least appreciating) the work of one of the most naturally-gifted counter-cultural authors of all time.