Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84, was very important to me in my school years, in the 1970s. I started reading science fiction at a young age, and Vonnegut was there, a bridge to lead me from genre fiction to the world of ideas. He was a satirist, an ironist, a writer eager to stare down the pitiless reality of life and death, but he was also funny (I might have prized that most at the age of, say, 14), and he took it as a moral imperative not to take himself too seriously. To this day there is no critical consensus as to his literary stature. As a creator of worlds he was very ambitious, but he didn't experiment with prose style or narrative form the way "literary" writers often do. He was comfortable with his instrument, a dead-pan delivery full of quick changes. He reminds me of Russian writers, Gogol with his noses on the moon, and Eastern Europeans, Kafka and Kundera: a fabulist of outrage. Slaughterhouse Five is his masterpiece, and I also recommend the movie version on its own terms (I don't know who directed). For myself, Cat's Cradle was always the definitive Vonnegut, whimsically portraying the human-caused end of the world as part of some cosmic joke, but not too big a joke. The Sirens of Titan is underrated I think, further exploring the possibility that we might become unmoored from our planet of origin (as Vonnegut was during the fire-bombing of Dresden). His first novel, Player Piano, contains the themes that he developed over many subsequent books, and stands as a good novel on its own. A 70s story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, holds its own with the novels. Later I moved on, I remember being disappointed with Breakfast of Champions, finding the ironic glibness now cloying, and it's true that his range was not endlessly wide. But Douglas Adams, cyberpunk, the films of Terry Gilliam: none of that would have been done the way it was without Vonnegut. I don't know that he's a "great writer," whatever that is, but as a cultural influence he was an important, blackly funny, ultimately humane voice.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Richard Yates's Almost Forgotten Classic

If you mention Richard Yates's 1961 novel Revolutionary Road (Little, Brown; reissued by Vintage Contemporaries), a whole lot of people never heard of it. That's too bad, because this is a novel that belongs on any list of classic statements of the 1950s and 1960s. The author creates a world that is at once complete artifice and too close to reality. It is at times almost unbearable, in the sense lauded by Kafka: "We should read only those books which wound and stab us." A young couple are entering their thirties and they are unhappy, maybe they're neurotic, certainly April had a terrible childhood, maybe they're trapped by "the system," certainly we are in the familiar American landscape of morally compromised and unfulfilled suburbia. Frank had dreams of...what, exactly? He didn't want to be just another person. He wanted to be "authentic," and he is filled with contempt for his employers, his neighbors, his country. They dream of moving to France with their two children, where Frank (a combat veteran of the war in Europe) can "find himself." Admirable iconoclasts, or merely narcissistic? Frank retreats on this, derailing the plans of April, who really means to do it: to drop out. Is he a moral coward or a decent man? Does he grow up or lose himself? The presence of a "crazy" person, the adult son of the neighbor/realtor, represents a certain interpretive alternative. He thinks he knows a sellout when he sees one and says so after Frank tells him that the Europe plan is off. His mortified parents take him back to the institution, and gradually taper off their visits to him there. Is this the thesis of R.D. Laing, that being "crazy" is just not being integrated into convention? He certainly recognizes April as a compatriot, as a "real female" as he says. One is reminded of the wonderful shyster Tamkin of Bellow's Seize the Day, only here it is the author himself who we're unsure of. What's he mean by all this? There is the irresistible entropy of Heller's Something Happened, the sad juxtaposition of formal dreams and human reality of Salter's Light Years , the terrible trauma underneath "normal" behavior of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. It's possible, but only just, to read the novel as black comedy. I'm a pretty tough reader I think, but I wasn't laughing. It occurred to me that there is a kind of "curse of the Beats" here, thinking more of the legendary failures of Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac to have marriages and homes than the overt marginalization of Burroughs or Ginsberg. Alcoholism might be a puppeteer. The genius of the novel is that we don't ever really know who or what the demonic puppeteer is, but someone or something is pulling the strings of these characters, so convincing and yet so obviously caricatures. And so we come back to the author. What's he up to? Something deadly serious: this is a novel with the moral ambition of Ivan Illych.