“The drama of any air raid on a civilian population, a gesture in diplomacy to a man like Henry Kissinger, is about the inhumanity of many of man’s inventions to man. That is the dominant theme of what I have written during the past forty-five years or so.” So says Kurt Vonnegut in a special preface to Slaughterhouse-Five, a preface that is now in the final section of an excellent new Library of America collection of Vonnegut’s early novels and writings.
The Library of America is a nonprofit publisher that has, since 1982, been releasing a canon of our nation’s finest fiction and prettiest poetry, our most serious speeches and most legitimate journalism. LoA books are hardbound, printed on Bible paper, and contain a sewn-in ribbon bookmark and calligraphy on the cover. Many editions top 1,000 pages in length. The texts are edited by scholars and feature notes, a chronology of the author’s life, and corrections to the errors of earlier editions. What they lack in the scholarship of a Norton Critical Edition they make up for in elegance, in providing at a reasonable price the pleasures of a solidly bound, densely packed, good old book.
The most recent LoA release is Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973. The bulk of the volume consists of four of Vonnegut’s better novels: Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. Also included are short stories, speeches, addenda to Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as a very haunting and dear letter Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 after surviving the fire bombing of Dresden.
For this reviewer born in the mid-1980s, the typical edition of a Vonnegut book was a Dial Press paperback with a large V slashing through an ominously colorful cover, and with Vonnegut forever described as “the best selling author of Timequake” (which this reviewer eventually learned was one of his most disappointing and anemic novels). Given that Vonnegut has passed on into the death and nothingness which he often contemplated, it’s appropriate that he will now appear alongside other great American pessimists on the Library of America shelves like Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, and Mencken.
Vonnegut was often referred to as a humanist, but perhaps humanism and pessimism are opposite sides of the same spiritual coin. Perhaps, to care deeply for humanity entails being greatly disappointed by human stupidity, violence, laziness, treachery, by our failure to face peaceably our finitude and our mortality. Perhaps you can’t feel infinitely sad about our condition unless you have the eyes to see the live-giving infinities we hold in our arms like bundles of birds’ nests, but which infinities we often smugly reject and dump into the fire.
For a reader who is new to Vonnegut, here is what you should know: He writes with a prose that is deadpan and plain. The tone of his books is bemused, sarcastic, bitter, and sad. He’s not an author particularly good at psychological subtlety or rich portraiture or compelling plot, but Vonnegut is good at gags, at absurd scenarios, and at wise sayings about life and death within the engines of civilization. Several of his works involve the fantastic tropes of science fiction like doomsday weapons, time travel, or space aliens. All of his books are humorous. Their laughter, their smiles, are those of a person watching a little world of little beings torturing each other and setting their world on fire with the most technologically advanced methods. The choice of witnessing such a grim spectacle is to either be amused and laugh or to draw the curtains and put your lights out.
Vonnegut chose to keep his lights on and to laugh. We’re better off for him having done so.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973 will be released on June 2 by the Library of America. To purchase it, click here.