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"As a kid I was the youngest member of my family" are the opening words to Kurt Vonnegut's final collection of essays, A Man without a Country. Six years later, we now have Unstuck in Time: A Journey through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels, by Gregory D. Sumner, and the authorized And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields.

As a biographer (my dissertation was an educational biography on Lou LaBrant, later published as Lou LaBrant: A Woman’s Life, A Teacher’s Life) as well as devoted reader and occasional scholar of Vonnegut, I think an important element of Vonnegut's work that is often overlooked is his demand that readers reconsider genre, particularly where fiction ends and nonfiction begins (or vice versa) or where to distinguish between author and narrator.

My path to being a biographer included, of course, a considerable amount of time spent reading biographies. And it was there I learned that creation is re-creation, that we often have multiple biographies of individuals because each biography is both a rebirth of the subject and a confession of the biographer. Like Vonnegut's work, biographies ask the reader to reconsider truth and Truth, as well as the day-to-day person behind the person we believe we know through that window we call fame.

Of Words and Life in Retrospect

Biographies completely redefined my perception of history (a biography of William James and multiple biographies of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson opened the nineteenth century to me), and literary biographies also reshaped my perception of literary analysis and my perspective as a teacher of literature. A biography of e. e. cummings forced me to confront the distinction between the person and the author (I remain a reader in love with cummings's poetry—although I doubt I would have felt the same for the man) while a biography of Emily Dickinson peeled away my blinders to Dickinson's genius and ignited in me an enduring passion for her "certain slant of light."

So with the publication of Sumner's literary biography and Shield's ambitious and first definitive biography of Vonnegut, I braced myself for both Vonnegut-overload and the very real possibility of having to reconsider my nearly obsessive devotion to Vonnegut's work.

I chose to read Sumner's work first while I was working on my next critical essay on Vonnegut's humor and the failure to translate Vonnegut's work faithfully to film. Sumner's Unstuck in Time keeps the reader firmly planted in Vonnegut's novels—fourteen sequential chapters bookended with a prologue and epilogue. This journey is fulfilling, especially if the reader has read all of Vonnegut's novels (or read these novels multiple times as I have, particularly as I was crafting my own book on teaching Vonnegut's work).

What is most effective in Sumner's work is that the building patterns of Vonnegut the writer are carefully and clearly developed by Sumner. Vonnegut began firmly planted in the norms of the world of published fiction (although Sumner's work tends to distort Vonnegut as only a novelist—something problematized well by Shields), but gradually and forcefully evolved into a postmodernist writer who defied simple definitions. In fact, a refrain I found compelling and accurate in Sumner's discussion is that Vonnegut is often misunderstood (even by his most ardent fans) and misrepresented. Vonnegut had some foundational commitments (the need for more human kindness, for example), but Sumner repeatedly notes Vonnegut's most enduring quality was ambivalence, as captured by John Updike's review of Slapstick!:

"And a patient reading of Vonnegut’s pronouncements leaves me uncertain as to whether he thinks the United States was evil, foolish, or right in waging war against Nazi Germany. Of course, no need to decide is laid upon the fiction writer; indeed, the interestingness and fertility of the puzzle derives from its unsolvability: our pain deserves dramatization only where it is paradoxical." (273)

While Sumner links Vonnegut's work to the refrain "unstuck in time," reminding readers of Vonnegut to honor the "patient reading" of Vonnegut's novel, Shields pulls his lens back while simultaneously focusing us more intently on Vonnegut as complex and unsettling human being.

Shields has produced what can safely be called the definitive biography of Vonnegut, one that was initially planned to be supported fully by Vonnegut until his death cut the collaboration short (which Shields details early in his work). As well, this biography proves to be as complicated and disorienting as the work of Vonnegut itself. For example, writer Neil Gaiman tweeted (@neilhimself) a brilliant tweet about a review of Shields's biography from The Guardian, which he later explored at his blog:

"I read this and thought, I'm going mad. Who on Earth could read a Vonnegut book and think that he was a grandfatherly bundle of warm fuzzy happiness? I mean, I read Vonnegut first as a ten year old, and it was shocking because he could joke in the face of such blackness and bleakness, and I'd never seen an author do that before. Everything was pointless, except, possibly, a few moments of love snatched from the darkness, a few moments in which we connect, or fail to.

"'Warm humour and homespun Midwestern wisdom'? Bizarre. I bet it was either written from a press release, or by someone who'd never read any Vonnegut."

And So It Goes, then, doesn't disappoint as an unmasking of Vonnegut, who appears to have crafted his persona as author so fully and effectively that some may be surprised by Vonnegut the man that Shields details. Like my experience with Kennedy's biography of e. e. cummings, I find in Shields's biography a Kurt Vonnegut who may have been far less appealing day-to-day than he remains in the words he crafted for the page—and I am OK with that. In fact, I expected that.

Vonnegut wrestled with living in the same way his published works wrestle with genre. Too often, I see a good deal of myself in that wrestling, and ultimately, I am not as concerned about whether or not Shields is distorting the man Vonnegut (a claim being made by Vonnegut's son Mark) as I am embracing the questions this biography raises about recreating any life and about each human's fate when confronting herself or himself in the unnerving overlapping of time created when we contemplate now the life that has passed and the life that may lie ahead.

The ultimate honor laid at the grave of Vonnegut may be ironically the biographies we have now and the ones to come that make real the Tralfamadorian possibility of becoming unstuck in time as we contemplate life: So it goes.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 07:52 AM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  well, i happen to know (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    he just had a great-granddaughter, so perhaps.

    "This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind[.]" -- Robert F. Kennedy

    by Loge on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 08:24:39 AM PST

  •  I have read all of Vonnegut's books - some long (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    x, drainflake77

    ago. I, like you, have reread many of them. He is one of my favorite writers. When I was in my 20s, Vonnegut made sense out of the world when nothing and no one else did.

    His autobiography Fates Worse Than Death is well worth reading.

    Interestingly, Vonnegut is being passed along through the generations since my children have read many of his books and think he's brilliant. Thank you for keeping his memory alive through this diary.

    ...if only animals could write...

    by Jinnia on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 08:45:36 AM PST

  •  I remember seeing Vonnegut speak (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    at my University in the early '80s.

    When he started, we all thought he must be drunk as his speech was slow and a little slurred and he appeared to be clutching the podium for support.

    After a while it dawned on us that what he was saying was brilliant. I remember he sliced up William F. Buckley in a uproariously humorous way.

    I could never figure out if he really had too much to drink, that was just the way he talked, or he was just toying with us. Television interviews I've seen haven't help answer the question. One thing is for sure: I've never forgotten it.

    "Who is John Galt?" A two dimensional character in a third rate novel.

    by Inventor on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 11:02:58 AM PST

  •  no damn cat, no damn cradle. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I was given cat's cradle as something to read while visiting my father in rehab when I was 11. Be it Vonnegut the man or Vonnegut the author, his ability to speak of horror with candor showed me how to shrug things off without discounting their importance, all while remaining kind and funny.

    The man did more for me in that one book than any other adult in my childhood.

    Pretty much everything that ever fell from his pen is a treasure from a mind better than mine.

    Thanks for reviewing the biographies.

    We keep electing whores to congress, and we wonder why we get screwed while the money flows to their pimps.

    by papa monzano on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 12:32:06 PM PST

  •  Vonnegut Family (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The accomplishments not only of Kurt but also of his brother Bernard are impressive.  The fact that Kurt brought up his sister's three children as well as his own speaks in his favor.  That his own daughter had the questionable judgement to marry Geraldo Rivera should not be held against him.

    How anybody got the idea that there was anything warm and fuzzy about Kurt Vonnegut (other than his hair perhaps) is beyond me.  He always had a very critical idea of human beans from Player Piano up till his last essays.  He had a very dark view of what people can and tend to do and rightfully so.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 01:43:30 PM PST

  •  I do think of Vonnegut (0+ / 0-)

    as warm and fuzzy.Few writers of his or any generation did a better job of exposing readers to the utter casual banality of evil, even in those with the best of intentions,and yet there is an undercurrent , I think, of the belief the the arc of history bends towards justice.That the simple love of a friend can cure ills.That humor can disarm and disable cruelty.I have reread all his books at least once.Hell I read Marks book.Like all great men Vonnegut was still just a man , with all the attendant flaws that implies.But his work is transcendent.It infuses my life in subtle ways.When I am in a restaurant I don't go to "take a leak" I tell folks "I'm going to steal a mirror" , I know it is silly but it is an example of how deeply ingrained his work is in me.Anyway KILGORE TROUT LIVES!"

    And so it goes

    End the tyranny of the 1%!

    by MasterfullyInept on Wed Dec 28, 2011 at 12:31:05 AM PST

    •  Vonnegut spoke one time of his philosophy (0+ / 0-)

      of humanism. I was privileged to be in the audience at a lecture about 15 years ago. He said that the birth of every baby should be a celebration. He talked about good things in life. I know he had, at his core, a deep feeling that there are very good people in the world.

      At the same time, he also talked about the need of people in our society to believe in the Cinderella story where everything ends up happy. He contrasted that with Hamlet, which he said was the best writing in the English language.

      He was also deeply cynical, and that mix of his love of people and his despair at what evils we can do was what made him fascinating to me.

      ...if only animals could write...

      by Jinnia on Wed Dec 28, 2011 at 04:36:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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