Paradise Lost

Stephen Bann

  • Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
    Cape, 224 pp, £7.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 224 02945 2
  • Bluebeard by Max Frisch, translated by Geoffrey Skelton
    Methuen, 142 pp, £5.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 413 51750 0
  • The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction by Colin Greenland
    Routledge, 244 pp, £11.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9310 1
  • More Tales of Pirx the Pilot by Stanislaw Lem, translated by Louis Iribarne, Magdalena Majcherczyk and Michael Kandel
    Secker, 220 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 436 24411 X
  • Yesterday’s Men by George Turner
    Faber, 234 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 571 11857 7
  • Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison
    Granada, 272 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 246 11766 4
  • Three Six Seven: Memoirs of a Very Important Man by Peter Vansittart
    Peter Owen, 236 pp, £8.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7206 0602 0

In a recent interview, Kurt Vonnegut rated his latest novel, Deadeye Dick, at B-. The gesture is disarming, and no doubt his critics will conclude that he has got it just about right. But if we start from the tacit assumption that Deadeye Dick is not a masterpiece, whether or not it becomes a best-seller, we can concentrate our minds on what it is that makes Vonnegut’s style of storytelling so distinctively beguiling. Vonnegut himself is there to tell us, in his author’s preface, what we can expect as a dividend from our reading: some of his favourite recipes (not to be taken literally), a passing glance at one or two of his favourite pictures, and a vicarious stay at one of his most cherished hotels – the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti. Since he has been so generous and direct with us, he might at least have let us in on a further secret – one of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. He might have explained to us, confidentially, that fiction is a machine for taking away guilt.

The strategy is unmistakable. Catastrophe haunts the pages of Deadeye Dick. But catastrophe is continually neutralised, caught up as it is in the shifting perspectives of the picaresque. The psychiatrist Winnicott cites the case of a psychotic who trembles in anticipation of a catastrophe which has already taken place. As readers of Vonnegut, we celebrate the knowledge that, in this fictional world at any rate, nothing cataclysmic takes place that will not finally be redeemed and retrieved. As the self-educated inventor Fred T. Barry assures our eponymous hero: ‘Human being [sic] always treat blizzards as though they were the end of the world.’ But the raging storms that have swept over the plains of the Middle West are due to vanish without trace, or without significant trace. ‘This will all melt in a few days or weeks ... and it will turn out that everybody is all right, and nothing much got hurt. You’ll hear on the news that so-and-so many people were killed by the blizzard, but they would have died anyway.’ Even when a neutron bomb devastates the entire region of Midland City, Ohio, the same sanguine response is offered by the hero:

So nobody lives in Midland City, Ohio, anymore. About one hundred thousand people died. That was roughly the population of Athens during the Golden Age of Pericles. That is twothirds of the population of Katmandu.

**And I do not see how I can get out of asking this question: Does it matter to anyone or anything that all these peepholes were closed so suddenly? Since all the property is undamaged, has the world lost anything it loved?

Kurt Vonnegut’s confidential message is beginning to come across to us. Fêted with descriptions of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, pampered with recipes for anything from ‘Eggs à la Rudy Waltz’ to ‘Haitian fresh fish in coconut cream’, we begin to become aware of a strange and subtle principle of economy which is at work. Rudy Waltz, alias Deadeye Dick, has been landed with his opprobrious nickname because of a regrettable accident which took place in his childhood: the nickname celebrates ironically the fact that he shot a pregnant woman dead, with a shot discharged at random out of the cupola of the family home. But it is the very guilt which attaches to this random and intrinsically absurd event that spurs Deadeye Dick to culinary creation, and eventually to dramatic art. When he arrives in Greenwich Village to supervise the premiere of the play he has written, it is to discover that his former personality had been based on the acknowledgment of guilt, and the attempt to make appropriate recompense. In Greenwich Village, this construction of identity is abandoned:

Suddenly nobody knew that I was remarkable for having shot and killed a pregnant woman. I felt like a gas which had been confined in a labelled bottle for years, and which had now been released into the atmosphere.

**I no longer cooked. It was Deadeye Dick who was always trying to nourish back to health those he had injured so horribly.

**I no longer cared about the play. It was Dead-eye Dick, tormented by guilt in Midland City, who had found old John Fortune’s quite pointless death in Katmandu, as far away from his hometown as possible, somehow magnificent.

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