Father of the Light Bulb

J. Robert Lennon

  • Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield
    Seven Stories, 911 pp, £29.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 60980 808 2

For decades, Kurt Vonnegut was an unshakeable, if unconventional, part of the American literary canon: even if his books didn’t find a lot of traction in academia, they were in every high school library. That’s where I first encountered him, some time in the mid-1980s, when I was supposed to be getting a head start on my homework before track practice. I’d been sitting in the fiction section when, bored, I pulled a book from a nearby shelf. It was Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and on the random page I opened there was a hand-drawn, many-splined asterisk. Above it, the text read: ‘To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole.’

I hadn’t realised that something like this could exist in my high school library – something so childishly, exuberantly vulgar. It turned out there was a lot about Breakfast of Champions that I hadn’t realised could exist: its intertwined plots, its stories within stories, its frank contemplation of mental illness and suicide. It was the first book I ever read that was about a writer, the first with a mentally unstable narrator, the first that employed metafiction, the first that was discursive and philosophical by design. I would later see these same themes and techniques used, perhaps with greater sophistication, by other writers, but Vonnegut was my original.

Unlike many Americans my age, I never studied Vonnegut at school. But it’s obvious why his books were popular with teachers. Slaughterhouse-Five, about the Allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, was a perfect book for impressionable readers ready to graduate from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: it was serious yet comic, historical yet quasi-science-fictional, complex in structure but straightforward in style. You could read it in a flash and feel you’d absorbed something of real importance – and its enigmatic story and anti-war message gave you a lot to talk about. I read Slaughterhouse-Five right after Breakfast of Champions, and then, feeling I should be more methodical, picked up Vonnegut’s first book, Player Piano, and read his work in order, filling in the handful of library gaps with my pocket money at the Waldenbooks in my local mall. Later, I’d start a rock band and name it Ice-Nine, after the horrifying military boondoggle in Cat’s Cradle (ice-nine is a form of water, solid at room temperature, that can turn all other water into itself), and write (I apologise) a rock opera based on Vonnegut’s novels that included songs about the sea-lionesque altered humans from Galapagos and the ‘chrono-synclastic infundibulum’ from The Sirens of Titan, a conceptual zone where conflicting truths resolve.

I suppose I must have encountered Vonnegut’s short fiction as I made my way through his work, but, save for ‘Harrison Bergeron’, his best-known and most adapted story, set in America c.2081, I didn’t remember any of it. As it happens, I missed a lot: this new Complete Stories is almost a thousand pages long. Lovingly edited by Dan Wakefield, a lifelong friend of Vonnegut’s and the editor of his letters, and by Jerome Klinkowitz, a scholar of Vonnegut’s work, this book collects definitive versions of all the stories he published in his lifetime, a number of posthumously collected stories, and five never before published, making a total of 97: ‘the short stories’, the editors tell us, ‘Kurt Vonnegut wanted the reading public to see’.

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