Oedipal Wrecks

Michael Mason

  • 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 first of these two novels actually wore on its sleeve the author’s doubt about its strengths, and his sense that he should push his work in some new direction. When I first encountered Vonnegut’s C grade for Breakfast of Champions I was rather taken aback, for the novel had seemed one of his most beguiling and in places poignant fictions. It is known to have been an outgrowth from Slaughterhouse 5; the Dwayne Hoover figure as originally deployed in the earlier book became a study in itself, and this character is a memorable combination of the monstrous and the vulnerable. But the various explicit indications given by Vonnegut in the text of Breakfast of Champions that the book was the end of the road, or the end of a certain road, are obviously heartfelt, and therefore a kind of renouncing of powers in the act of displaying them.

Vonnegut called Breakfast of Champions, in the Preface, ‘my 50th birthday present to myself’; he felt ‘as though I am crossing the spine of a roof – having ascended one slope’. He has elsewhere said that the book was his ‘promise’ that he was ‘beyond suicide’, and it is no secret that Vonnegut went through a severe personal crisis at this period. Even if we take his word for it that Breakfast of Champions, despite its black themes, betokened recovery, and a psychic breakfasting, by Vonnegut the man, it is evident that Vonnegut the novelist was not at ease. He puts himself into the story – which is an oddity in his fiction – and has himself saying: ‘this is a very bad book you’re writing.’

The only way he is able to find good in the badness, ascent in the descent from the roof’s spine, is to regard Breakfast of Champions as a sort of dustbin, the receptacle for a salutary chucking-out of what is worthless and exploded in his practice as a writer hitherto. He announces that in this ‘cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come’ he is going to give up ‘all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career’. He has even ‘resolved to shun storytelling’ – a declaration echoed in several statements by Vonnegut, at this date, that he was giving up fiction. He had already experimented with drama, in the play Happy birthday, Wanda Jane.

Vonnegut did not give up fiction. He returned to it three years later with Slapstick, and the result suggested to the critics that there had been no renewal after the mid-career crisis of Breakfast of Champions. Slapstick even contains brief reappearances by some of the old loyal cast of characters, supposedly abandoned, such as Norman Mushari and Winston Niles Rumfoord. In Deadeye Dick (1982) the setting is Midland City, where Breakfast of Champions was set, with many of its inhabitants revived also. The narrator and hero of Bluebeard (1985) is another character from that novel, Rabo Karabekian, while Galapagos is narrated by the son of Kilgore Trout. The latter had already figured in Jailbird (‘Kilgore Trout is back again. He could not make it on the outside’). The most famous of Vonnegut’s Science Fiction inventions, the planet Tralfamadore, even finds a place in the latest novel, Hocus Pocus.

So Vonnegut’s career in the last twenty years is perhaps the story of a fresh start never achieved, and of old habits reverted to, happily and confidently in due course, but with a certain distaste at first (that D for Slapstick) – and, it cannot be denied, never to the complete liking of the critics and academics How correct is this rather dispiriting picture of the way a great fictional gift has developed? Vonnegut evidently misjudged his wish or capacity to give his writing a radically different turn in the troubled period of the early Seventies. But it would be absurd to hold him to the letter of his declarations at that time. The only question that can properly be asked about them is: what was fruitful in them?

There are in fact several important innovations in the recent novels. They are more political, in a conventional sense, than their predecessors: more like Dos Passos and less like Tolstoy (though Vonnegut remains a Tolstoyan writer in his gift for ‘making strange’). The early works sometimes depicted a decaying world and once, in Cat’s Cradle, a dying one, but all the last six novels are more or less apocalyptic. They are all related by first-person narrators (hitherto only Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night had been – and the latter, particularly, can now be seen as Vonnegut’s prematurely late novel). Here is a feature which does seem to be connected with his rethinking of his art in the early Seventies. He wasn’t going to ‘put on any more puppet shows’ but instead ‘go on more of an ego trip’.

When people speak of ego trips it is usually safe to substitute ‘boring egotism’ for ‘ego’, but if Vonnegut has ever been culpable in this way it is only in the frankly autobiographical speeches and magazine pieces (and any writer’s vanity would be put to sore temptation in these contexts, given the unstinted money and uncritical admiration that Vonnegut commands). The imaginary narrators of the novels achieve by their back-and-forth-darting memories the satisfying feeling of inevitability characteristic of Vonnegut, but which previously required devices like Rumfoord’s spatio-temporal distribution in a ‘chrono-synclastic infundibulum’ or Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorean time-tripping (which is actually not caused by the Tralfamadoreans, and resembles an intensely eidetic, two-way memory).

In other words, to compare early and late works, Chrono’s ‘lucky piece’ in The Sirens of Titan – a humble object with a momentous destiny – is like countless details known to be significant to Eugene Debs Hartke, narrator of Hocus Pocus, as his mind ranges across his own contradictory life and the strange history of Lake Mohiga valley. The inevitability is satisfying because it harmonises with the determinism of Vonnegut’s world, but also just aesthetically: for Vonnegut is a considerable connoisseur of plotting (he tried to get accepted to do an anthropology postgraduate degree at Chicago after the war on the subject of universal story patterns).

Rhetorically, Vonnegut’s fictional technique consists of simple assertions about the important elements and actions in whatever world he happens to be describing. The other kind of procedure, in which these materials are depicted obliquely, via a multitude of assertions about ancillary things, is an invention of Western literature in the mid-19th century, and has become extremely popular for its capacity to mimic the quality of our experience of people and actions in a real environment. Critics have complained that Vonnegut’s novels are deficient in character and setting, as if this were due to a disability in him, but his work is actually no more deficient in these respects than Henry Fielding’s, or even Jane Austen’s. Vonnegut is quite capable of imagining good social vignettes, for instance, as the Pisquontuit material in God bless you, Mr Rosewater shows.

The older method is rooted in storytelling, and Vonnegut’s recent novels, with their continuous narrational voices, should convey a clear message to the critics that there is no point in looking for post-Balzacian, post-Dickensian discourse in these pages. There is an apparent oddity, however, in his adopting the technique of first-person narration so consistently since 1973 given some of his other declarations at that time. He announced a wish to ban from his fiction not only his existing cast of characters, but in some sense all characters, because of an untruthfulness that results from the convention of ‘leading characters, minor characters’: ‘I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other.’ This is a position which it does seem fair to expect Vonnegut to have adhered to. As recently as 1987 he has said that to ‘devote a book to an individual character, or to five of them’ is ‘ludicrous in terms of how large the world’s population is’. He has spoken of historical periods and cultural movements as ‘characters’ in some of his fiction.

How is this to be reconciled with the frank dominance of a single character – a male narrator – in each of the novels since Breakfast of Champions? Shortly after the author, as a character in this novel, has uttered his resolve to make every person exactly as important as any other he hears a statement about art in a very different vein which ‘transformed’ him, and constitutes ‘the spiritual climax of this book’. An Abstract Expressionist painter called Rabo Karabekian, who until this point has seemed to be a kind of charlatan, fairly blatantly exploiting the culture-vulture mentality of Midland City by selling to its new arts centre for $50,000 a huge painting entitled The Temptation of St Anthony which consists of a single vertical stripe on a plain ground, utters a startling self-defence:

It is a picture of the self-awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us ... A sacred picture of St Anthony alone is one unwavering band of light.

Rabo Karabekian is the hero of Bluebeard – a novel which I have come to think perhaps the best of all the later works. In this book he is indeed a highly honourable practitioner of Abstract Expressionism, a friend and artistic associate of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and the rest. But Karabekian has stopped painting in this vein, some of his works have self-destructed because of dud materials, and he has been secretly engaged (using the remains of one of his largest abstract works) on a massive piece of representationalism: a panorama depicting a huge concourse of soldiers, POWs and civilians of all nations which he had witnessed at the end of World War Two. It contains no less than 5,219 figures, none bigger than a cigarette, some as small as a ‘flyspeck’, and all handled with a brilliant realistic technique of which Karabekian is a master.

Here, evidently, is art that is not ‘ludicrous’ in its inadequacy to the ‘world’s population’. Karabekian has conceded the rightness of the drive to such an adequacy, but by contrast the literary artist who voiced it – Kurt Vonnegut, in Breakfast of Champions – is ‘transformed’ by Karabekian’s Abstract Expressionist creed. Actually there is no particular indication in the novel that the aesthetic of the ‘immaterial core’ of ‘self-awareness’ supplants that of adequacy to the vast pluralism of existence (and the great gathering of the living debris of war painted by Karabekian is of course based on a scene Vonnegut himself witnessed, and has several times described). The message of Breakfast of Champions would seem to be that there is a place for both these creeds, and the novels which follow – all of them personal histories with global settings and large vistas of time (a million years in the case of Galapagos) – fit this thought well.

Aesthetic matters lead on to deeper preoccupations, to matters that recur throughout Vonnegut’s writing (at this level one cannot carp about repetitiveness: as if Samuel Beckett should have changed his vision of our existence for the sake of variety in his art). Vonnegut evidently admires the American school of Abstract Expressionism (of which he was a literary contemporary), particularly for their capacity to hand over to the ‘auto-pilot’ of intuition and inspiration. Robotic behaviour has a memorable and equivocal place in Vonnegut’s fiction. No reader forgets the brainwashed Use of The Sirens of Titan, foot-soldier in the army of Mars and directed to strangle his best buddy on the parade-ground by a radio receiver in his skull – and there are many other figures in the novels who act under external control in a frightening way, against the grain of their being.

But Karabekian’s great ‘I am’ is also a receiver of ‘messages’. One of the artist characters in Bluebeard suddenly becomes ‘like somebody listening through headphones to a perfectly wonderful radio station I couldn’t hear’ as he starts to work in his great medium, sprayed paint. This novel actually climaxes in a surprising way with a celebration of the involuntary side of Karabekian the artist, in this case with reference to his great achievement of realistic painting in the war picture: ‘I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: “Thank you, Meat.” ’

‘Meat’ – here appropriate because it is the artist’s hands which have performed the feat – is a variant on Vonnegut’s imagery of determinism as it affects our personal actions, a supplement to that of radio, chemicals and cellular life. Determinism, it is not too much to say, is the central motif of Vonnegut’s fiction: the most common theme of the novels and the cardinal principle of their narrative methods, in the early work as in the late. Never is the reader spared the sense that our individual and collective human life is wholly controlled by physical cause and effect.

To express the point, the novelist must, particularly, contrive situations where there is an incongruity between human intentions and capacities, on the one hand, and actual outcomes, on the other. Vonnegut’s fiction is littered with cases of this incongruity: think, for example, of the many humble or even destitute characters who have a momentous impact on events (and, conversely, of the many highly-placed and wealthy ones who are impotent). The dislocations of wish and act in Vonnegut’s world are usually comic, sometimes disturbing. And as representations of the determinism of the real world they carry both negative and positive charges: for Vonnegut, determinism is apparently virtuous when, for example, it drives artistic creativity.

Readers, also, are bound to bring to the books their own diverse reactions to the supposed determinism of our world. For instance, a Science Fiction fantasy (as in The Sirens of Titan) to the effect that all human history is a signalling system for a stranded intergalactic traveller can amount, in literal terms, to no more than a reminder that societies have probably been influenced by more random and trivial causes than we like to think. No great occasion for angst here. In fact, in Hocus Pocus, where the Sirens device is echoed, it is implied that the interest of this particular invention is that it parodies such things as the belief in a universal Jewish conspiracy.

The comic hypothesis in Deadeye Dick that Otto Waltz changed human history by giving the destitute young Hitler some cash we may recognise as possible in principle – but doubt that the long-term run of human history hinges on the survival of particular individuals. The idea that one small chip of ‘ice-nine’, accidentally released into the Caribbean (in Cat’s Cradle), could destroy most life on Earth resonates more with our fears, about scientists and about the biosphere. The destructive influence of ‘bad chemicals’ on the personalities of the many schizophrenic and psychotic characters in his novels is often very moving.

However the ludicrous chapter of accidents in a South American port which decides the evolutionary future of mankind in Galapagos, though quite faithful to the arbitrariness that is central to Darwinian theory, will not upset many readers. Nor will they be greatly troubled by another piece of accurate Darwinism in this book: that evolution is not tropistic, and species can develop in the direction of less complexity and sophistication in the right circumstances (a million years hence, in Galapagos, man has become an aquatic mammal with no hands and a tiny brain). In Darwinism, ‘all persons, living and dead’, are, quite literally, ‘purely coincidental’, and not to be ‘construed’. But we have developed good mental armour against the bleak truths of evolution by natural selection since 1859.

Historically, determinism has been found most disquieting for what it implies about our moral life, and this seems to be the really serious aspect of the matter for Vonnegut too. Moral value is subverted by determinism insofar as we judge actions on the strength of the intentions of the person who performs them. This measure of an action has been extremely important through most of Western history. There is utilitarianism, of course, but that tends to offer moral judgments of a rather bloodless sort, and to avoid talk of guilt’ – whereas Vonnegut is interested in guilt and then tore is not attracted to utilitarianism as a viable moral scheme in a deterministic world (he has hinted, admittedly, that Howard Campbell, the ‘American Haw-Haw’ in Mother Night, is evil because of his pro-Nazi propaganda, even though he is simultaneously broadcasting intelligence for the Allies – but I find this a puzzling account).

Vonnegut is interested in guilt, and finds it a morally compelling emotion. For him it crops up in a particularly undeniable form with acts of betrayal of people close to us: such acts are a recurrent focus of moral anguish in the novels. But what place can such anguish possibly have if we are not responsible for our actions?

At the dawn of modern thinking about these questions, and before our intention-based moral codes were in place, it appears that there was not a problem about this. At least, a man like King Oedipus was deemed as abjectly guilty as a man could be for crimes which were wholly inadvertent. It is interesting that Vonnegut, in his fictions of morality in a deterministic world, hits often been drawn to invent careers which resemble Oedipus’s. Malachi Constant, in The Sirens of Titan, makes love to Beatrice Rumfoord (a woman who is old enough to be his mother) although he has striven to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he would do so. The outstanding example of this sort of effect is Rudolf Waltz in Deadeye Dick, who as a boy kills a pregnant woman in a distant house with a shot fired at random from a high building.

Vonnegut’s readers may not generally realise how Oedipal, in this sense, is the most celebrated situation involving a crime and an individual which he has described: namely, the firebombing of Dresden, during which Billy Pilgrim is locked up in one of the city’s slaughterhouses. The nub of this extraordinary moment, as presented by Vonnegut, is the utter inadvertence of Billy Pilgrim. He is an American soldier, in Dresden, as his country’s enemies become victims of perhaps the largest single gratuitous killing in history – and yet he is blameless. He knows nothing about the crime, he is excluded from it by thick walls and locked doors, he contributes to it in no way, his hands are completely clean. There is no shadow of a casuistical judgment in terms of just or unjust killing, because there is no occasion for it. Nevertheless, this unimpeachable analysis feels somehow wrong. Morally, Billy Pilgrim is not the same quantity as if he had not been an American soldier, had not been in Dresden, and the city had not been razed with perhaps 100,000 deaths. In an obscure way, even he is guilty.

One of Vonnegut’s thoughts here – and it is typically Vonneguttian – has reference to post-war history. He holds that the very real moral rightness of the Allied cause had a deeply corrupting effect on subsequent American military policy (thus his saying that ‘God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine’ is not inane, but sardonic). He wrote in 1973 that the ‘illusion of purity, to which we were entitled in a way, has become our curse today ... the core of the American tragedy, best exemplified by the massacre of civilians at My Lai, is the illusion engendered by World War Two.’ So Billy Pilgrim’s blamelessness is culpable, if he believes in it. But how far could he believe in it?

The tendency of Christian moral thought has been to bolster our emphasis on the motives of an action, but at the heart of Christianity is a figure who is surprisingly Oedipus-like. Jesus Christ is the most guilt-burdened individual in human history, and also, at least since the Fall, the most innocent. Vonnegut is evidently moved by the Oedipal element in the Christian notion of atonement (he does not show an interest in the remainder – the freeing from sin of those atoned for). He says in the preface to Deadeye Dick that Rudolph Waltz’s innocent but terrible act ‘is all the bad things I have done’.

The most Christ-like figure in his fiction to date is the thoroughly honourable and upright Hiroshi Matsumoto, in Hocus Pocus, who commits hara-kiri in front of the Hiroshima peace monument in the year 2001: ‘I doubt that he ever double-parked ... yet he executed himself in a manner that even the most terrible criminal who ever lived would not deserve.’ Hiroshi as a young boy, like Billy Pilgrim, had been flukily protected from the explosion of 1945, and emerged from his hiding-place into a scene of incomprehensible destruction.

It is important not to make Vonnegut sound too superstitious on these matters. As I have said, he does not appear to entertain the idea that the guilty are saved by the taintedness of the innocent. The latter is partly just a way of expressing bewilderment and horror at the fact of being human, given what humans can do: of asking: ‘what am I like, if these acts have been performed by others of my kind?’ It is also partly a way of voicing an acute sense of social responsibility, such as a humane privileged American (and especially a thoroughgoing determinist) is almost bound to feel in the face of the great inequalities of status and well-being in his country, The altruism of Eliot Rosewater is the occasion of humour, but it is not laughed at. Hocus Pocus is dedicated to the labour leader Eugene Victor Debs, who said: ‘while there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.’ But can an essentially comic writer really be preoccupied by determinism and its implications? Chaucer was a comic writer, and he was exercised by the subject. I think that Vonnegut, if he had lived in the Middle Ages and composed a long poem about Troilus and Cressida, might have finished it with something like the laughing flight of the dead Troilus into space.

Comparisons with Chaucer, on top of comparisons with Tolstoy, will be altogether too honorific for those who have never admired Vonnegut, or have ceased to do so. I shall conclude by mentioning a writer whose similarity to Vonnegut, and known influence on him, is possibly less flattering: George Bernard Shaw. Critics of Vonnegut have sometimes remarked with some justice on the haziness or orthodoxy of what appear to be uncompromised and uncompromising declarations of belief by him. In these moments one can see why Vonnegut enjoys so greatly the Shaw manner, with its downright, pugnacious statements which wriggle out of your hands when you try to seize them, its dizzying piling of one obstreperous assertion on another so that all are neutralised, and its sudden turning aside into a parenthesis, joke or tu quoque.

Vonnegut is a novelist, however, and does not rest his reputation on volumes like the one under review here. Shaw inherited some of the illusory subversiveness of his style from Samuel Butler, who did write important fiction, and the rules governing novels are different. The surprising twists and turns in Butler’s depiction of the political, social and moral code of Erewhon are Vonneguttian. Eventually the dust will settle, and the countless great fictional achievements of our time acclaimed weekly by the reviewers will sort themselves out into an order of true quality – and many, many now famous names will become as obscure as the hundreds of forgotten Victorian novelists. If Vonnegut emerges with a standing like that which Samuel Butler has acquired in the Victorian literary scene the ghosts of his admirers will be well pleased.