Michael Mason

  • Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
    Cape, 246 pp, £5.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01772 1

The publication of Jailbird in Britain is oddly well-timed. The hero of this novel, Walter F. Starbuck, joins the Communist Party before the war while still at Harvard. Later he becomes a civil servant, and in 1949 is investigated by a Congressional committee on Communism. After the hearing he is simply demoted, but in his testimony he mentions the Communist affiliations of a former friend who is now a prominent politician. This friend is eventually imprisoned. Both men are universally calumniated as ‘traitors’ – Starbuck because he testified against his friend, and the latter because he was un-American.

There are obviously things for British readers to ponder here, but it is doubtful if they will attend to them. The British have long had a way of taking the liberal view in relation to American politics, and the illiberal one in relation to their own. They can tut-tut over the cruelty, intellectual confusion and self-righteousness which attends the exposure of ‘traitors’ in America, while not noticing these qualities in a British setting. Perhaps in some part of our minds we suppose that America does not really exist, and that her journalists and novelists are making it all up to entertain us. But America undoubtedly does exist, her problems are often akin to ours, and Vonnegut is a novelist to be taken seriously.

It is true, of course, that no comment on recent events in Britain is intended in Jailbird. And, while a serious comment on America is intended, the novel has another aspect which requires some discussion first (and which leads back to the subject of treason anyway). Jailbird is a typical Vonnegut narrative – which is to say something quite narrow and precise. On the strength of the previous novels, a kind of Identikit Vonnegut plot could be drawn up, as follows. There is one leading character, a male. His fortunes vary so extremely and abruptly that he may not be recognised in one phase of life by friends and relatives from another. At times he enjoys great privilege and authority, but at other times his liberty is severely restricted and his mind and will may be manipulated. He loses a close partner from one phase, whom he may recover in another. He is unwittingly associated with acts and objects of great consequence, and in particular with the transmission of important messages he does not understand. He commits a terrible act of betrayal, perhaps against a male ‘best friend’. He participates in some kind of multiple human calamity. He may be associated with a bogus-seeming but humane religion.

A summary of Jailbird will indicate how extraordinarily consistent Vonnegut remains in his plotting. The young Starbuck is the protégé of a reclusive millionaire. At Harvard there is Communism and an affair with a fellow Party member, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. In 1938, Starbuck gets an appointment under Roosevelt, and he later holds several important civilian posts at the end of the war in conquered Germany. Here he meets his future wife, Ruth, who is a concentration-camp survivor. Then comes the Congressional investigation and the fatal mention of the Communist past of his friend, Leland Clewes. Starbuck eventually loses his job and all his friends as a result. In 1970, Nixon remembers his name and gives him a minor job on the staff. The Watergate conspirators hide a trunk with $1 million of bribes inside it in his basement office. He is sent to jail. Two weeks before his arrest, Ruth dies. He leaves jail destitute and friendless. The next day, on the streets of Manhattan, he meets Leland Clewes and Mary Kathleen O’Looney, who seems to have become an imbecile tramp. Actually she is the head of the world’s largest corporation, RAMJAC, and she keeps all her credentials stuffed in her shoes. She dies that night. Starbuck keeps her identity a secret and takes over RAMJAC. Two years later the truth comes to light, RAMJAC is dismembered, and Starbuck returns to jail.

Anything that survives in Vonnegut, anything retained by him from novel to novel, has a peculiar interest because he is a rejector by disposition. His keenest literary intuitions are of what would be cumbersome, excessive and bloated in his fiction, and he has always moved in the direction of spareness and depletion. The plot of Jailbird can be mapped onto that of The Sirens of Titan, for example, quite closely, in the sense that there are many points of correspondence between them. Leland Clewes is Stony Stevenson, Mary Kathleen O’Looney is Beatrice Rumfoord, Starbuck’s prison is the training camp on Mars, Kathleen’s papers are Chrono’s lucky piece, Starbuck’s unloving son is Chrono. But where has all the science fantasy material gone? Vonnegut has long striven to subdue his own inventiveness in this field, and he has developed the figure of Kilgore Trout, author of over 75 Science Fiction novels, as a kind of safety valve. Trout ensures with his interpolated stories that the pressure of invention in the main narrative keeps low. Indeed, for Vonnegut, Kilgore Trout now seems to represent fictional inventing in general, all varieties of which are thus comically reprehensible. ‘Yes – Kilgore Trout is back again’ is the opening sentence of the perfectly here-and-now Jailbird.

Narrating is another aspect of his occupation which Vonnegut has evidently felt wary about for some time. He doesn’t like his novels to begin at the beginning and end at the end of a chain of events. For some years now he has used prefaces (mushrooming out of the strange, wordy title-page of Slaughterhouse 5). Jailbird also has an index, which is in itself a means of interfering with simple narrative sequence. It rearranges the narrative materials with results just as arbitrary as the order of Billy Pilgrim’s hops in time. All the recent novels are chopped up and out of sequence chronologically. Vonnegut seems to want his fictions to spread sideways rather than forwards. The look-aside to collateral or ancillary facts has become one of the most familiar hallmarks of his manner.

When Vonnegut mentions a fact (whether true or alleged) he likes to use the colon, together with an appropriate syntax. ‘I thought this: “At least I don’t smoke any more” ’ is an example taken at random from Jailbird. This slightly odd procedure is a further instance of parallelism. It also makes the fact in question seem matter-of-fact. A special atmosphere of caution about going beyond the literal is another thing which makes Vonnegut’s mature writing unmistakable. Metaphor in particular is most fastidiously used. Even at an early stage in Vonnegut’s career, figures of speech had a way of collapsing into facts: cashiered officers, Vonnegut tells us in The Sirens of Titan, are given nicknames, ‘something like Pops, or Gramps, or Unk’. Malachi Constant is called Unk.

In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut invented a novelist who sounds as if he represents everything his creator is struggling against stylistically: Philboyd Studge (there is a hidden joke here, because ‘Filboid Studge’ in Saki’s story of that name refers, as ‘Breakfast of Champions’ refers, to a breakfast cereal). In challenging Philboyd Studgery, Vonnegut is taking on an entrenched and respected part of the American literary tradition. There is of course also a laconic, depleting tradition in American writing, represented by such writers as Twain, Hemingway and Ring Lardner. But the incontinently inventive, verbose, freely figurative mode seems to get more of the limelight. Certainly in this country there is agreement among critics that Mailer is a writer of more stature than Vonnegut.

There are several points of close resemblance between the two men: dates of birth a few weeks apart, early Communism, and strong responses to the Second World War. As writers, they started off from common ground (Player Piano reads in places like Barbary Shore, published a year earlier), but have moved in almost opposite directions since. The British critics, favouring the Studgery of Mailer, have chastised Vonnegut’s increasing plainness as ‘coy’ and ‘faux naif’. ‘Coy’ is one of those words, like ‘arch’, ‘jejune’ and ‘fey’, which critics have almost emptied of meaning through hazy or downright incorrect use. If anything is meant in this instance, it must be that Vonnegut pretends to be embarrassed, which would be roughly consonant with the allegation of false naivety. Either way, the suggestion is that Vonnegut’s plainness involves a reticence or evasion which is calculated. Here he is at his most plain in Breakfast of Champions: ‘Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes. The chemicals he mentioned were intended to kill all the foliage, so it would be harder for communists to hide from airplanes.’ This is certainly an unusual way to describe the Vietnam War, but is it evasive or reticent about anything? Vonnegut is using the plain speech of satire. These two sentences sound new and yet tell a familiar truth in the manner of Swift. There is also an approximation to the terrible simplicity of Tolstoy, which produces what critics have called the ‘strangeness’ of his writing.

The odd cocktail of motifs that makes up the typical Vonnegut novel can be thought of in several ways. Some of the ingredients (the tremendous mobility of the hero and his involvement with huge corporations, for example) seem to be present because Vonnegut is an American, and his society is as it is. But the powerful hero who moves unrecognised among the lowly is an ancient idea in romance. Vonnegut’s novels have clear affinities with this form of literature and, in the theme of the recovered partner, with the Shakespearean variety in particular (though there is never in Vonnegut anything good about the recovery of offspring). Winston Niles Rumfoord is Prospero-like. ‘All’s well that ends well,’ says Mary Kathleen when she has found Starbuck again.

As in romance, the plots involve a good deal of coincidence. And as in romance, the suggestion is that the world is orderly. But Vonnegut finds this orderliness to be an extremely disagreeable fact – an attitude which is perhaps his single most original quality as a writer. For Vonnegut, the orderliness of the world is that which science expounds. From our point of view, it is trivial at best, and potentially horrible. People’s lives are indeed connected (and thus our acts often have consequences much greater than we intend), but the connections have no purpose. There is a cradle, but no cat. Far from being trendily concerned that we don’t ‘communicate’, Vonnegut thinks we communicate too well. We may unwittingly tell a Dwayne Hoover to go mad, or compose messages with megaliths for another civilisation. The recurrent calamities in Vonnegut’s novels are usually highly systematic and involve things combining tidily, like the chemicals and receptors in Dwayne Hoover’s brain. The firestorm at Dresden is seen as the rectification of a chemical instability through rapid oxidation. Ice Nine destroys the world, but reduces all the water in it to two ordered forms. Vonnegut agrees with Paul Proteus: ‘He knew with all his heart that the human situation was a frightful botch, but it was such a logical, intelligently arrived-at botch, that he couldn’t see how history could possibly have led anywhere else.’

Because we communicate more than we intend, we may, like Walter F. Starbuck, betray a friend without knowing it. Alternatively, we may, like Howard Campbell in Mother Night, send enemy secrets to our country while appearing to betray it by broadcasting Nazi propaganda. But the strange persistence of the idea of treason in Vonnegut’s fiction requires a richer explanation than this. Some of Campbell’s propaganda is reproduced in Slaughterhouse 5. He attacks America by attacking its social inequalities – and it is as if we can read the encoded message of the patriot here, because the criticism amounts to an affirmation of socialism. In America, there are pressures on a socialist which are bound to make him entertain the idea that he is a traitor. Certainly the incidence of treason rises with the degree of political interest in Vonnegut’s fiction. In Jailbird no less than three of the minor characters are legally determined as traitors.

Which is in effect the answer to a final question it is worth asking about the new novel: does it depart significantly from Vonnegut’s previous practice? Has this novelist whose instinct is to ‘throw things out’ added anything on this occasion? The immediately striking fact is that this is by far and away Vonnegut’s most political novel since his very first, Player Piano. But its focus is the Great Depression and the War (what Vonnegut ‘coyly’ calls ‘a planetary economic collapse followed by a planetary war’), and this is habitual with him. References to the figures and events of the post-war period are rare in the novels (and critics have been too ready to declare that Slaughterhouse 5 is really about the Vietnam War). The events of the 1930s and 1940s obviously made an unforgettable impression on Vonnegut, and formed his political views decisively. In Jailbird he is unashamedly a partisan of the American working class. An imaginary episode of brutal strike-breaking is described in what must be the longest continuous passage of narrative Vonnegut has written for years. Another long section is devoted to the histories of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Vonnegut’s socialism is fairly unhopeful, and also fairly unworldly. Tolstoy needs to be invoked again, for it is his brand of socialism to the extent that it appeals to the utopian, egalitarian vein in the Gospels. The main locus for this is of course the Sermon on the Mount, and some of the Beatitudes are paraphrased in the preface to Jailbird. Vonnegut has indeed come full circle – because the Sermon on the Mount contributed the motto for Player Piano 26 years ago. That novel has always seemed something of a false start for Vonnegut since it differed so much in style and organisation from what followed. It was always recognisably a Vonnegut novel in its narrative motifs, however. Now Jailbird shows that its ethical concerns did not cease to preoccupy the novelist either.