More than any writer of his era, Kurt Vonnegut survives as an image: haggard, mustachioed, nicotine-stained, his hair a tangle—a cat’s cradle, one might say—of curls. As was often noted, he looked like Mark Twain, only cuter. Certainly, he was more boyish than Twain. He was a millionaire who rued, until he died, that his mother had not been a better hugger; a grown man who went swimming, sheepishly, in pants; a father who “painted pertinent quotes on various walls in the house.” He was 6’3″, but small at heart. “If the government assigned heights based on maturity,” he wrote in a letter to his first wife, Jane, “[I] would be much shorter.”
Vonnegut’s fiction was similarly deceptive; he addressed major themes in a minor key. “Mass destruction was a bit of a Vonnegut trope,” as Charles Shields observes in And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
(Henry Holt and Co., 528 pages, $30.00). That this was so is undeniable, and yet the message of Vonnegut’s darkest novels must sound saccharine to many schoolchildren. He believed in common decency and common sense, in mankind over machines. He was big on being nice. Being nasty was a bête noire. To the madness of his century, Vonnegut, who died in 2007, applied the moral vision of a Mouseketeer.
This made him a sympathetic public figure, who was quick to decry the religiosity of the Republican party and the war in Vietnam, but a novelist whose limitations were as conspicuous as his gifts. “There is an almost intolerable sentimentality in everything I write,” as Vonnegut himself admitted. In his greatest satires, Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), he envisioned catastrophic events from the perspective of their bystanders. This reflected a truth of his own experience. As an American prisoner of war in Dresden, in 1945, Vonnegut had hidden in an underground meat locker while Allied aircraft firebombed the city. When he emerged, “Lazarus-like,” days later, Dresden was a cinder. “It was as if he had slept through the sacking of Troy and woke just as the Greeks were boarding their ships for home,” as Mr. Shields puts it.
Vonnegut’s genius was to stake out this experience of anticlimax as his novelistic territory. His heroes are bemused bit players whose lives are measured by their distance from great affairs, rather than their proximity to them. It is a worldview inverted in favor of the little guy, and it is as hostile to change as it is to power. Mr. Shields is insightful when he points out that Vonnegut, though revered by hippies, was “less a radical than a reactionary.” On the day of the moon landing, in 1969, Vonnegut went on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, where he could rail against its profligacy in real-time. “For that kind of money,” Vonnegut had already written, paraphrasing a scientist, “the least [NASA] can do is discover God.” He had become the lord of the bumpkins. And indeed, with his frayed Afro and slight stoop, his invariable cigarette, Vonnegut looked the part.
It is surprising, then, to discover the degree to which this look and the persona that went with it were contrived. Mr. Shield’s biography of Vonnegut takes its title from Slaughterhouse-Five, where it occurs dozens of times; it is the perennial refrain of bad news. “He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. So it goes.” The phrase encapsulates the attitude of wistful passivity that readers correctly associate with Vonnegut’s fiction. But it is an ironic title for the biography of the man himself, because Kurt Vonnegut the illustrious author was a strenuous work of artifice, whose fate was anything but thrust upon him. “We are what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut wrote in his third novel, Mother Night (1961), “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” He was a scrupulous pretender who heeded his own advice.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He grew up in a milieu so mistrustful of art that, when it came time for him to go to college, he was compelled, against his wishes, to study chemistry. Yet he discovered his vocation early. Vonnegut wrote columns for his high school and college newspapers, and, after the war, in 1951, he quit a well-paid job in public relations at General Electric to pursue his fiction full-time. But he was already married and a father, and he continued, perforce, to supplement his income by less exalted means. He worked as a high school teacher, a creative writing instructor, a copywriter, a car salesman and a caption writer for Sports Illustrated, where his tenure was characteristically brief. “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” Vonnegut wrote the day he walked out. He was rarely too proud to stoop to an opportunity, but often too proud to exploit one. “Maybe the problem was not that the agents didn’t know what to do for [Vonnegut],” the SI secretary, Carolyn Blakemore, later reflected, “but he didn’t know what to do in the role of a writer.”
Ms. Blakemore misjudged her colleague. One thing Vonnegut did do was rise at 5 every morning to write. And when his moment finally came, he seized it with an alacrity that is hard to distinguish, in Mr. Shields’s telling of the story, from opportunism.
As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture.
In retrospect, the acuity with which Vonnegut marketed himself seems to demonstrate an insight into his era that is close to cynicism about it. Mr. Shields’s thoroughgoing biography does little to dispel this impression. (Mr. Shields, in turn, can demonstrate a thoroughgoingness that is close to comedy. When he quotes from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, he footnotes it, play, act, and scene.) Vonnegut became an idol to a demographic to which he personally remained aloof. He did not get hippies, and they, up close, did not get him. When he met with Jefferson Airplane to brainstorm lyrics, they could only apologize to each other. “As a friend wrote to [Vonnegut] sometime later, ‘Your writing has the peculiar quality of only reflecting the reader’s beliefs back on him.’”
Mr. Shields is a rather bland reader of his subject’s fiction. “The more autobiographical his work became,” he observes, “the less space he devoted to fiction.” Still, he has a nose for its author’s contradictions. The sentimental old man of American letters could be a cold fish in the flesh. A holder of rousing political opinions, Vonnegut “had only been mildly interested in politics most of his adult life”—until he realized that “his audience expected him … to moralize.” A salty Midwesterner, he fed “at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.” A stormy foe of the Vietnam war, he was also a stockholder in “Dow Chemical, the sole maker of napalm.”
And Vonnegut, who championed family to his readers, was reckless with those closest to him. “The persona, the ‘ghost’ of him, as he called it, became like an itching, second skin he couldn’t slough off,” as Mr. Shields writes. In 1972, while living in Manhattan with the photographer Jill Krementz, whom he married in 1979—“I taught Kurt to play tennis and to make love”—he asked his estranged first wife to file his taxes. “That would give him more time to write.” He spurned the agent, Knox Burger, to whom he owed his career, and the publisher, Sam Lawrence, to whom he owed its resurrection. When critics, after Slaughterhouse-Five, began to pan his novels, “he charged [them] with one of his favorite accusations: they were just snobs.” Still, he “badly … wanted to teach at Harvard.”
“Perhaps it was possible to live too long,” writes his biographer. Vonnegut aged ungracefully. His writing declined, his relationship with Ms. Krementz staled—to his children, he referred to their marriage as “his disease”—and, in 1984, he attempted suicide. “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” Vonnegut wrote. Yet Vonnegut himself seems to have been the victim less of a series of accidents than of the voracity of his own designs on fame. “Thinking about his behavior usually led to periods of depression,” Mr. Shields writes, “which in turn interfered with his work.”
This was a truth that Vonnegut, characteristically, could deal with only in doodles. In the 1970s, “he began adding six quick strokes of a felt-tip pen under his signature—an asshole. … He was an asshole, he explained …; however, ‘being human was an asshole condition.’” So it goes.
At a small college on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, the baseball team sees its fortunes rise and then rise some more with the arrival of a supremely gifted shortstop. Harbach’s expansive, allusive first novel combines the pleasures of an old-fashioned baseball story with a stately, self-reflective meditation on talent and the limits of ambition, played out on a field where every hesitation is amplified and every error judged by an exacting, bloodthirsty audience.
Throughout his career, King has explored fresh ways to blend the ordinary and the supernatural. His new novel imagines a time portal in a Maine diner that lets an English teacher go back to 1958 in an effort to stop Lee Harvey Oswald and — rewardingly for readers — also allows King to reflect on questions of memory, fate and free will as he richly evokes midcentury America. The past guards its secrets, this novel reminds us, and the horror behind the quotidian is time itself.
By Karen Russell. Alfred A. Knopf, cloth, $24.95; Vintage Contemporaries, paper, $14.95.
An alligator theme park, a ghost lover, a Styx-like journey through an Everglades mangrove jungle: Russell’s first novel, about a girl’s bold effort to preserve her grieving family’s way of life, is suffused with humor and gothic whimsy. But the real wonders here are the author’s exuberantly inventive language and her vivid portrait of a heroine who is wise beyond her years.
By Eleanor Henderson. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, $26.99.
Henderson’s fierce, elegiac novel, her first, follows a group of friends, lovers, parents and children through the straight-edge music scene and the early days of the AIDS epidemic. By delving deeply into the lives of her characters, tracing their long relationships not only to one another but also to various substances, Henderson catches something of the dark, apocalyptic quality of the ’80s.
By Téa Obreht. Random House, cloth, $25; paper, $15.
As war returns to the Balkans, a young doctor inflects her grandfather’s folk tales with stories of her own coming of age, creating a vibrant collage of historical testimony that has neither date nor dateline. Obreht, who was born in Belgrade in 1985 but left at the age of 7, has recreated, with startling immediacy and presence, a conflict she herself did not experience.
Our intellectual omnivore’s latest collection could be his last (he’s dying of esophageal cancer). The book is almost 800 pages, contains more than 100 essays and addresses a ridiculously wide range of topics, including Afghanistan, Harry Potter, Thomas Jefferson, waterboarding, Henry VIII, Saul Bellow and the Ten Commandments, which Hitchens helpfully revises.
A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son.
By Ian Brown. St. Martin’s Press, $24.99.
A feature writer at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Brown combines a reporter’s curiosity with a novelist’s instinctive feel for the unknowable in this exquisite book, an account — at once tender, pained and unexpectedly funny — of his son, Walker, who was born with a rare genetic mutation that has deprived him of even the most rudimentary capacities.
From petty criminal to drug user to prisoner to minister to separatist to humanist to martyr. Marable, who worked for more than a decade on the book and died earlier this year, offers a more complete and unvarnished portrait of Malcolm X than the one found in his autobiography. The story remains inspiring.
We overestimate the importance of whatever it is we’re thinking about. We misremember the past and misjudge what will make us happy. In this comprehensive presentation of a life’s work, the world’s most influential psychologist demonstrates that irrationality is in our bones, and we are not necessarily the worse for it.
Which side would Great Britain support during the Civil War? Foreman gives us an enormous cast of characters and a wealth of vivid description in her lavish examination of a second battle between North and South, the trans-Atlantic one waged for British hearts and minds.
In 1997 — three years before Yi Yi would introduce Edward Yang to most of those who know him at all, and ten years before Yang succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 59 — Barbara Scharres staged what was at the time a complete retrospective of his work in Chicago, prompting a pretty magnificent piece from Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Reader. He begins by imagining a “new kind of cinema” that would, as opposed to the predominant mode of proposing “various escapes from modern life,” instead “lead us back into the modern world and teach us something about it.” And in 1997, he was “discovering clues about this new kind of cinema in two very different places, chiefly through the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Iran and Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang in Taiwan.”
Needless to say, several intriguing paragraphs follow in which he compares and contrasts, pairs up and delineates these four figures until, eventually: “The most novelistic of the four directors, Yang is also in some ways the most challenging: his complex plots typically incorporate several crisscrossing narrative strands; he dares us to keep track of them all. Of the four he’s also the one most fully engaged with the problems of contemporary urban life, and the one most preoccupied with the relationship between his characters and both architecture and objects.” A Brighter Summer Day (1991), he argues, “belongs in the company of key works of our era: Kira Muratova's The Asthenic Syndrome; Béla Tarr's Sátántangó; Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Life and Nothing More, and Taste of Cherry; and Hou’s trilogy — City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, and Good Men, Good Women…. Indeed, Yang’s film surpasses these other masterpieces in its novelistic qualities, richly realizing a physical and social world as dense with family, community, and other personal ties as any John Ford film, and furnished with more sheer physical presence (including characters, settings, and objects) than any other fiction film I know of from the 90s. It took Yang four years to prepare — much of the time apparently spent training his superb cast, which is mainly composed of nonprofessionals. In fact, this film is so uncommonly good that Yang’s other very impressive works pale beside it.”
Again, Yi Yi had not yet been made. A deeper analysis of A Brighter Summer Day follows, leading into several solid paragraphs on other films in the oeuvre. All in all, a highly recommended read. For the moment, though, here’s Richard Brody in the current issue of the New Yorker on A Brighter Summer Day: “In the nearly four-hour span of this vast Proustian memory piece, from 1991, Edward Yang meticulously delineates the anguish of young people in Taipei in 1959 and the gang violence that pervades their lives…. Yang’s methods bring a melancholy tenderness to his recollections; he films long takes of action intricately staged in real time with a rueful, contemplative reserve, and, as in Proust, the physical objects to which he pays close attention — an American tape recorder, a radio from China, a Japanese sword, a flashlight stolen from the movie studio — both signify and effect the endurance of the past.”
"In all of his films, Yang examined the world through the cloudy prism of modern Taipei," wrote Godfrey Cheshire in the Voice when we lost Yang in 2007. Let’s have Cinespect's Ryan Wells interject here for a moment: “Usually when the talk moves to Yang there’s a very personal, melancholy longing for what could have been, all the while cherishing even more what we’ve been given. It’s very classic Yang, that pit you get in your stomach.”
Back to Cheshire: “Born in 1947 in southeastern China, he was brought to Taiwan by parents fleeing the Communist revolution.” Yang studied in the States and “worked briefly as a researcher in Seattle before an art-house encounter with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God sent him back to Taiwan determined to be a filmmaker.” His “Urban Trilogy” — That Day, on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986) — “drew comparisons to Antonioni and Godard for their intricately austere and stylistically adroit dissections of contemporary anomie. After the disappointing reception of the five-years-in-the-making A Brighter Summer Day, Yang shifted course. His next two films, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), tried to give a comic spin to the director’s characteristic concern with the flux and disarray of life in Taipei. Though they suggested to some critics that Yang’s gift was not for comedy, the films led to the brilliant synthesis of Yi Yi (A One and a Two)… Though surely not intended as a summing-up, Yi Yi managed to combine the critical acuity of the Urban Trilogy and the affecting expansiveness of A Brighter Summer Day with the philosophical whimsy of his previous two films. A vision of family (and city) life as a mesh of precarious privacies, the three-hour bittersweet comedy won Yang a Best Director nod at Cannes as well as the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. It also earned Yang something he’d long deserved: a hearing with American filmgoers.”
"The fact that Yang is, to American audiences, synonymous with Yi Yi is startling because Yang’s films are all about process and gestation,” suggests Simon Abrams in Slant. “Like the Taipei of his films, Yang’s filmography is a body of work of and about progress, a body of themes and ideas that all come together in his swan song. In films like That Day, on the Beach and Taipei Story, Yang’s protagonists try to determine whether it’s better to tentatively withdraw from society or to enjoy both the perils and the ecstasies of fully engaging with the world outside their front door…. In later films, his characters are more capable of taking the highs of life with the lows. And that’s a good part of why Yi Yi is one of Yang’s most accomplished works; equal parts celebration and primal scream to modern domestic life in Taipei, it’s a mosaic of angst and love. It’s the apex of Yang’s oeuvre and a self-sufficient microcosm unto itself.”