Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country

A Man Without a Country [Amazon, Goodreads] is a short little book and the last of Vonnegut's all too short life. The simple fact that he wrote it at eighty two years of age should alone make it worth reading. So few authors, great or not, continue to write into their eighties.  Vonnegut himself must have thought his age important since he informs us on two of the book's 160 pages and again in the table of contents.

Vonnegut calls his own work "windy" in comparison to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and similarly lauds other tight poetry.  His signature style, though, is still obvious.  His zingy one-liners abound.  "The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes", he says of a retail clerk in New York. "Now isn't that worth the trip?"

It would be unreasonable to expect an octogenarian not to sound like an old man.  Vonnegut doesn't disappoint. He is tired, he says, grouchy, and plainly wishes the human race were something other than he has observed it to be. Those familiar with his more famous works, particularly Slaughterhouse 5, will be familiar with his reasoning.  His horrific experiences during the firebombing of Dresden informed not only that great work but this lesser one.  His distrust of authority, and the rewriting of history, are well earned.  No doubt his natural tendency to aged crankiness coupled too tightly with his antiestablishment bent.  They left him, as he says, unable to joke.  His lifelong defensive mechanism finally gave way to despair.

Perhaps surprisingly, Vonnegut did not in the end commit suicide.  Other famous American writers have, such as Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson and, more recently, David Foster Wallace.  He dances around the idea of it, though.  The use of the word "suicide" appears more than the word "depression", including a quote by Albert Camus ("There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide").  Vonnegut plummeted down a flight of stairs at his home in New York City on April 11, 2007, just three months after the paperback release of this book, and died instantly from the fall.

Vonnegut had despaired not just of life but of all of humankind by the time of his death.  He informs us that his "distinct betters" Albert Einstein and Mark Twain had done the same.  Twain, of course, had insisted that his famous War Prayer stay unpublished until after his death.  And no wonder.  Can you imagine the public reaction to these words in US evangelical churches during the last invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan?

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it.

Twain's family waited an additional thirteen years before allowing the War Prayer to be published, buried in an anthology.

No stranger to despair was Twain when he looked upon the human race at the end of his life.  Vonnegut's rants are not much different in spirit but certainly lesser in both scope and bite.  "If you are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D.C.", we are informed. "But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell."  Vonnegut was surely lonesome as hell.

Vonnegut's observations that "Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power" or "Only nut cases want to be president" set the political tone for the book.  There is nothing fundamentally new or even particularly striking about his hatred of the Bush administration nor in his repulsion of the American culture of war.  We are left with a feeling that he gave up trying to be insightful at the same time that he gave up on people.  This is a mistake, however.  A close read of A Man Without a Country will yield plenty of worthy Vonnegutisms.  He notes the relative disparity between evangelical Christians' quoting of the Ten Commandments versus the Beatitudes, for example.  His characterizations of those "guessers" who seek power without first acquiring understanding in Chapter 8 is brilliantly conceived and executed.  This hit-or-miss peculiarity is endemic to any book of collected essays.

Vonnegut's claim that Einstein similarly "gave up on people" is harder to verify or even to comprehend.  There is no sense that Vonnegut was joking, nor subtly misdirecting.  I suspect he was simply mistaken.  Einstein did, in fact, sign the Russell–Einstein Manifesto decrying the stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons just days before he died. However, this was clearly taken as an act of hope.  The eleven luminaries whose signatures appear were calling for a way forward, not a giving up.  Indeed, the famous phrase "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest" taken from the manifesto itself infers an understanding of "humanity" different than Twain's or Vonnegut's.

Vonnegut takes more from Twain than his attitude.  He borrows liberally from his style.  Vonnegut's description of sealing a manila envelope ("First I lick the mucilage - it's kind of sexy") is as tight a piece of American writing as anything produced by his hero.  The mixture of pedestrian vulgarity and erudite vocabulary would be as comfortable in Twain's Following the Equator if not in Huckleberry Finn.

To the end, Vonnegut loved learning and the experience that comes with it.  But he sometimes recoiled from its effects.  He was desperately uncomfortable with artists' inability to affect political policy.  Therein lies his reason for giving up on us.  He might have held onto his impact on MIT's Sherry Turkle, the preeminent sociologist of Internet relationships, the writers Douglas Adams and Bill Bryson and even The Grateful Dead.  The creation of art and science has driven our civilization at least as much as the warfare that he so despised.

Kurt Vonnegut may have been surprised, as we learn in the final chapter, to have become a writer, but we should all be glad that he did.  His voice has transcended generations of American fads while being unabashedly unique the entire time.  We can and should forgive his old man's rantings if the end result is just to make us wait a bit longer for his next bullseye.