"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.