Hume, Kathryn, Philological Quarterly
Vonnegut has just published what he says will be his final novel. This is an appropriate time, therefore, to try to come to terms with the totality of his output. Characterizing the array of books he has produced over the last 45 years is no easy task. Although a few of his novels can loosely be called science fiction, one would not read him for the pleasures of that genre. Slaughterhouse-Five made him famous as an anti-war novelist, but war is not his only or even his chief concern. He is a humorist, but if you want a cheery laugh, you can do better elsewhere. His attitude toward most social structures is satiric. He is hostile to most kinds of institutional power, and he sympathizes with the poor--sixties characteristics still present in his most recent novel. He has certainly been successful--his own Absolut Vodka ad, high fees for public speaking--yet the popularity of his fiction comes neither from providing emotional candy of romance or adventure nor from pleasuring the professoriat.
What is the nature of Kurt Vonnegut's enterprise? For some novelists, the enterprise is patent. Trollope's is to present institutional politics, usually within the framework of a nominal love story. Faulkner portrays a cross-section of society in a small locale as the inhabitants live out the residual effects of the War between the States. Silko records native ways in the modern world, and gives body to old myths in hopes of aiding the demise of non-tribal cultures. Mailer and Pynchon target the interactions between people and power, while Updike examines the erosion of Protestant faith as it comes up against secularism and modern sexual mores.
When we turn to Vonnegut, we see that he comes across as a novelist of ideas (rather than of action or character),(1) and his enterprise is to tackle problems--usually social problems, but sometimes artistic and personal. In novels of ideas by such writers as Thomas Mann, Doris Lessing, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, John Barth, and Salman Rushdie, we find the initial problem or question teased out, analyzed, explored, and tested. In The Sentimental Agents, Lessing defamiliarizes political rhetoric. Rushdie's novels ring many variations on the dictator looming over the lowly individual, who tries to find some standpoint from which political action is possible. In novels after The Sotweed Factor, Barth tries to generate stories that might help free him from his excruciatingly self-conscious knowledge of the hero monomyth. Vonnegut overtly explores an idea in Breakfast of Champions when he considers the implications of treating humans as machines. Usually, though, Vonnegut does not work the idea through very elaborately. His presuppositions about people and about the nature of reality create impasses, preventing him from considering solutions that might seem logical to someone not sharing those presuppositions. This, I shall argue, is the unseen pattern that characterizes Vonnegut's fiction. Intellectual quest is derailed by presupposition; the forward motion dissipates into stasis, and what supplants it is melancholy emotion.(2)`
To identify and distinguish between what Vonnegut tries to achieve and what he actually achieves, one must analyze the recurrent elements that characterize the unusual reading experience that his fiction offers. I shall outline his presuppositions, the problems he tackles, and the dynamics that transform intellectual endeavor into emotions. Then we can examine the core elements in his vision, including the relationship he establishes with the reader. Along the way, I shall try to locate his fiction in relation to that of other contemporary writers. What he produces is so much sui generis that critics do not connect him to other figures of this period, yet without such comparisons (whether to Vonnegut's advantage or disadvantage), one cannot truly understand what he has been doing so long and so successfully for specific audiences.
Let us start with Vonnegut's presuppositions. …