- Fates Worse than Death by Kurt Vonnegut
Cape, 240 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 224 02918 5
Kurt Vonnegut will be 70 this year. At this age he would indeed be a remarkable writer if his latest book – which is a collection of occasional pieces in the vein of the earlier Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons (1975) and Palm Sunday (1981) – had broken much new ground. In that sense his detractors and his admirers need not fall out on this occasion. The essential familiarity of the manner and matter of Fates Worse than Death should not give comfort to the former, or worry the latter (who will, rather, enjoy a pleasure like that of knowing that a valued friendship is still intact). But the accusation of repetition or stagnation, against Vonnegut, goes back a long way: to epochs in his career where the admirers probably do need to be able to locate novelty and growth if they are to make more than modest claims for his achievement.
The epigraph to Fates Worse than Death reads: ‘All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental and should not be construed. No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.’ This is very reminiscent of the epigraph to The Sirens of Titan (1959) – not Vonnegut’s first novel (which was Player Piano in 1952), but the first clearly to intimate that a writer of exceptional power and originality had entered the American literary arena: ‘All persons, places and events in this book are real. Certain speeches and thoughts are necessarily constructions by the author. No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.’ Doesn’t this similarity amount to repetition over too long a span? If, alternatively, the echo of 40 years earlier is simply a joke by the author, some readers will find it expressive of a cosy relationship between Vonnegut and his audience, of a sort of conniving in his own cultishness, which they also dislike.
Certainly they may complain that these two bits of prose, put together, boil down to no more than whimsy: for how can they apply, in one case, to a work of Science Fiction, and in the other to a collection of essays and speeches (especially as Vonnegut seems to be saying that the latter are more fictional than the former)? And what does this heavy-cum-light talk of ‘the innocent’, ‘God Almighty’ and ‘Heavenly routine’ mean anyway? In other words, there is a good deal here of the kind of thing which sets the teeth of anti-Vonneguttians on edge.
The point at which Vonnegut allegedly ran out of steam is usually perceived to be in or around the early Seventies: with a decline certainly registered in Slapstick (1976) – which was a critical disaster – and perhaps already in Breakfast of Champions (1973), which bore the burden of the enormous acclaim attending its predecessor, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969). It has become something of a commonplace that Vonnegut never fulfilled the promise of greatness given in that novel, and that his career has been downhill, or at least at a lower altitude, ever since.
The pattern of academic discussion of his work has reflected a matching disavowal by the literary-critical élite. There were several books and a host of articles in the journals through the Seventies but then a virtual silence. Postgraduates no longer embarked on theses about Vonnegut. Enterprising young professors of literature no longer extended their publications credits with studies of him.
If Vonnegut was a major novelist until about the age of fifty this was still no mean feat. Angela Carter has just died at the same age, leaving a body of work comparable in scale. It would seem impious to suggest that this work might have been diminished in value if she had lived longer, but only to write disappointingly. Still, there are many reputations which have been affected, positively and negatively, by the arbitrary fact of a writer’s survival or failure to survive. And to accept that all Vonnegut’s fiction after 1973 can be ignored is to perform a drastic amputation: of no less than six novels, almost half his career.
It is interesting that Vonnegut’s occupation of the literary high ground was also shortened at the other end of his career, by the unusual publication history of his early novels. This had the effect of making his wait for recognition much longer than most – and almost outlandish in the modern era of six-figure advances for still-to-be-written first novels (a piece of publishing behaviour which, ironically, must have been remotely encouraged by the stunningly successful debuts of some of Vonnegut’s contemporaries, notably Mailer with The Naked and the Dead, Jones with From Here to Eternity and Heller with Catch 22). After a conventionally modest beginning with the hardback-only Player Piano Vonnegut became a writer of original paperback fiction: a format which in those days categorically excluded a novelist from the literary pages. The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night (1961) were issued in this way. At a late hour Cat’s Cradle (1963) was switched to orthodox hardback format, but the new strategy (as also with God bless you, Mr Rosewater, 1965) lost Vonnegut his market following without securing the reviews. In one way of looking at this career (and I think this corresponds to a common perception), Slaughterhouse 5 is not only Vonnegut’s last important novel, but also his first.
Remarks by Vonnegut in Fates Worse than Death, and elsewhere, make it clear that this dedicated novelist has been distressed by the bad reception of Slapstick and its successors. He has joked rather brutally that he considered putting a contract out’ on Salman Rushdie for a bad review of Hocus Pocus (1990). Some of the harsh judgments have come from writers personally closer to him than Rushdie, and inflicted correspondingly deeper wounds.
But what is Vonnegut’s own assessment of his last twenty years’ output? He is not, it seems, completely at odds with his critics in part of their account. In Palm Sunday he awarded ‘grades’ for his novels down to Jailbird (1979): Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5 got A+; The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, God bless you, Mr Rosewater and Jailbird A; Player Piano B; Breakfast of Champions C; Slapstick D. And more recently he has called Galapagos (1985) his ‘best book’.
So Vonnegut is not apologetic about any major phase of his career, and certainly not about the kind of novel he writes in general (he has spoken rather acutely of how critics tend to mistake the appearance of literary achievement for the reality, and thus prize the unwork-manlike and clumsy: ‘if a literary experiment works like a dream, is easy to read and enjoy, the experimenter is a hack’). But he does agree, to judge by his self-awarded grades, with the notion of a serious (if temporary) falling-off after Slaughterhouse 5, starling with Breakfast of Champions and reaching its nadir with Slaptick. D is, it must be said, a very low mark – and nothing short of abject when you give it to yourself.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.