Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back to the Familiar, Kurt Vonnegut & "Jailbird"

Honestly, I can't remember the last Kurt Vonnegut novel I read. Wait, that's a lie. It was "Dead-Eye Dick," and I read it back in late 2008, September, if I'm not mistaken. Vonnegut was my first "favorite writer." I finally got to reading him late in my undergrad years, and before him I thought writers could be interesting, exceedingly so actually (George Orwell being for me the paragon of that idea), but not that I could imagine conversations with them, or crazier yet, aspire to follow in their footsteps.

But Vonnegut changed that. He broke down the abstraction of a writer on a pedestal. And he's without question the one who got me thinking I'd like to write narrative fiction of my own. His stamp on my subconscious (and probably my complete consciousness) is all over my first serious story attempt. Pithy, paltry attempts at characteristically Vonnegut-style asides / interjections are hard to miss, if ever you were to read it.

Still, despite his immovable place in my mind as the writer of writers (whom I admire), I have had stylistic issues with his storytelling for quite a while now. I was underwhelmed by "Dead-Eye Dick" in truth, and others of his later career, which like many who express misgivings about his work, have left me feeling like he'd let himself become a caricature of sorts, parodying his own approach to writing, the noted metafictional elements and all -- and the best possible outcome of his doing so is he'd be aware of it, at least, which I do hope he was (and I believe he was, or at least disappointed by it).

I feel there's evidence of this in quotes like his reference to aging novelists such as himself from "Timequake", in which he said:

Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was fifty-five. Enough! My architect father was sick and tired of architecture when he was fifty-five. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!

He made similar, more specific statements of the sort that most writers completed their best work by age fifty-five in interviews and so forth, one interview in particular with Charlie Rose in which he made said comment was seized on and creatively edited into what became his infamously slanderous televised obituary by FOX News, a media dispensary that evidently and not terribly surprisingly didn't miss him even days after his passing. But returning to the point, which is not that FOX News is awful (although it is), but that Kurt Vonnegut seemed, if even jocularly, dissatisfied with what he was writing more or less after the time of "Slaughterhouse-Five."

Still, every career has its summit. And while I believe he had long since reached it and begun his ascent, I was particularly pleased by Timequake, which seemed to return to the Vonnegut of old in all the right ways while deftly including anecdotes told with that inimitable and cantankerous Vonnegut clarity that of itself contributed greatly to his popularity. In other words, for one book he cleanly melded old and new, and in my view produced a memorable work -- at approx. age 77 no less! Who knew? Yes, yes, I know he's inimitable, sorry. Won't happen again.

So what of "Jailbird" then? How does it factor into what was ostensibly meant to be its review (if the title of this post should carry any weight)? Maybe I'm just in a mood to like Vonnegut right now (I suspect this might be a lot of people's default setting; it's probably mine), but I really enjoyed "Jailbird" not that it did anything unusually well per Vonnegut's standard.

Nevertheless, it was told with the usual eye for happenstance and genuine concern for humanity that bleeds through his narratives -- and with plenty of humorous asides and anecdotes (particularly funny are main character Walter F. Starbuck's first one-on-one encounter with Arpad Leen and the circumstances surrounding that meeting, and a science fiction writer with whom Starbuck is acquainted (happened to be imprisoned alongside) writing a fictional account of Albert Einstein's entering Heaven -- with a twist that in Heaven the primary concern of the angels is absolving God of responsibility for the failure of humans to profit monetarily while alive. They do so by demonstrating the many opportunities, outlandish though they may have been, presented to each and every man, woman, and child who passes through the pearly gates.

Does "Jailbird" add anything special to Vonnegut's corpus? Well, no, but neither does it take anything away. Is that a profoundly ringing endorsement? I suppose not. So it goes.

(Ah, go to hell for judging me!)


  1. Okay, in an attempt to participate in your conversation I will say I have not read Jailbird. I've read about 2.5 Vonnegut books thus far in my reading career (I lost the 3rd book, mid story, and never got another copy and picked it back up). I think I've told you my feelings about Vonnegut as a writer. I have a hard time with over saturated cynicism in books. And I feel like sometimes his cynicism gets in the way of me being able to connect fully to what he writes about.
    That said, when I'm reading Vonnegut I'm enjoying it immensely. His humor is along the lines of my humor, and I enjoy the way he writes and what he has to say. But after the book is over, maybe a week after I've set it down, I always feel like this cloud kind of gathers in my memory over my reflection of the book. It's not that I can pin point what it is that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but just that it's there. But maybe that's the point. Given the sort of things Vonnegut is critical about in our society, and human beings in general, I imagine he wants these ideas to sit sourly with the reader on some level.
    I know this isn't necessarily directly related to the post, but I know you would rather some one pipe up about anything as a reaction to what you say, so that's my two cents. Vonnegut is great. People always think when I say these things it means I don't like Vonnegut, or I'm dismissing how great of a writer he is. It's not that I don't like him as a writer, or even that I don't like his books. But there is always an after effect once I finish a book of his that leaves me disquieted and uncomfortable. It deters me from going back, but in the end I do and find myself enjoying him all over again till the books done. This sort of endless Vonnegut effect cycle, if you will.
    So maybe I'll read this one.

  2. Also I didn't proofread shit in my comment, so you can go to hell for correcting any punctuation, spelling, or grammatical errors you spot.

  3. Me put my grammatical two cents in? Baw! This IS a blog, after all.

    And nicely said Erin -- exactly what I'm talking about, have an opinion and share it. Your opinion of Vonnegut is one I can certainly understand. Definitely find myself feeling various ways about his writing, as said.

  4. I just stumbled on this and thought I'd say.. Jailbird is the first and only Vonnegut novel I've read so far (I'm just a young literature student.. that's my excuse). I thought it was phenomenal. If this is so-so to a Vonnegut fan, I imagine I've got some good reads ahead.

  5. Yes, Vonnegut has quite a collection of novels worth reading. I'd recommend you check out one of his three best knowns and remembered, "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle," and "Breakfast of Champions." After that, I've always been partial to "Slapstick" and "Mother Night." Happy reading to you, Kathryn! Vonnegut changed the way I looked at literature.