Need something to do this summer? Why not tackle the Vonnegut canon?
In 2013 Wilson Taylor and Matthew Gannon, two friends and writers with a passion for literature, criticism, and Kurt Vonnegut, launched their Summer of Vonnegut, a critical conversation in which the two writers read and reviewed all fourteen of Vonnegut’s novels. The resulting essays comprise The Vonnegut Review, a website featuring Wilson’s and Gannon’s insightful explorations of Vonnegut’s work. Taylor and Gannon combine their sharp critical eyes and knowledge of literary theory with an appreciation for the essential humanity of Vonnegut’s fiction. Their work is highly recommended, and available at The Vonnegut Review.
Wilson Taylor shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: What prompted the idea for the “Vonnegut Summer” in 2013?
A: Vonnegut Summer grew out of a winter of intellectual uncertainty and expectation. Matt (Matthew Gannon) and I were both sort of spinning our wheels academically; we knew we wanted to write and pursue a project together, but we weren’t quite sure where to start. We had graduated from college but had not yet started graduate school. The two of us would often discuss literature, politics, music, and theory, and we pursued this after college through digressive and labyrinthine email threads; we wanted to continue these discussions in a more concrete and structured way. We also both shared a long-standing love for Vonnegut–we were both a bit mesmerized by him, really–and wanted to engage with his literature more deeply and vigorously. We sought to bring our wide reading in literature and cultural theory to bear on a favorite author of our youth. We also felt that, while Vonnegut is culturally beloved, his work doesn’t garner the critical attention it deserves.
Vonnegut Summer was initially Matt’s idea. We both found Vonnegut to be a writer whose entire fourteen-novel body of work was worth of careful, critical exploration, and which is also best read as sort of an organic, multifaceted whole–what Robert Tally imagines as Vonnegut’s serial experimentation with the Great American Novel. We both instinctively grasped the value of a single-author survey, and Vonnegut–whose novels are delightfully and deeply human; their lightness belies their richness–had always been close to our hearts. Our stated goal was to “reinvigorate critical readings of Vonnegut for the twenty-first century” and to read Vonnegut as “unstuck in time,” as an indispensable writer who speaks to and for our contemporary moment. So we then decided to divide his fourteen novels in half, slapped together a website, and Vonnegut Summer was born.
Q: While re-reading the novels, did you re-evaluate any of your previous thoughts about a particular book? If so, which one(s) and how?
A: While I had previously read much of what I studied for the project, it was tremendously instructive to read and re-read these novels with both a more scrutinizing eye and within the context of his entire system of writing. For instance, a later novel such as Slapstick–generally considered a lesser piece–becomes much more poignant and heartbreaking when read against the entirety of Vonnegut’s exploration of loneliness, intimacy, and belonging in post-war and late-capitalist America. Also important is to consider Slapstick as an exploration of his relationship with his first, and recently divorced, wife, Jane, with whom he shared a fruitful artistic relationship. The shape and tone of Vonnegut’s novels shift throughout his career, but their song, so to speak, remains the same; Vonnegut endlessly returns to a constellation of themes. For this reason, Vonnegut’s often-misunderstood late-career novels (including mysterious gems such as Deadeye Dick, Bluebeard, and Timequake) reveal themselves more acutely and with more heartbroken familiarity within the broader context of Vonnegut’s work and life. While any novel of Vonnegut’s can be picked up and appreciated independently, the rich tone of each novel resonates more harmoniously within his full arrangement of novels.
Q: In one of the lead essays, you write that Vonnegut “invents a new American idiom at the intersection between irony and love.” The essay mostly refers to Slaughterhouse-Five. Do you see him using that same idiom in any of the later works?
A: Absolutely. This emotional and tonal nexus very much informs the core of Vonnegut’s work, which, despite its postmodern and cynical trappings, remains inspired by a deep sense of love and absurd hope and is embroidered with overtly theological threads of redemption and absolution. In this way, Vonnegut–in a similar vein as writers such as David Foster Wallace or George Saunders–is constantly negotiating tensions between modernism, postmodernism, and some sort of old-fashioned, post-secular prophetic sensibility. Vonnegut remains a romantic and a humanist attempting, like us all, to reconcile a fractured contemporary.
I consider a novel such as Bluebeard–a magical novel about an aged painter (and stand-in for Vonnegut) which shares little, in its aesthetics, structure, or narrative, with Slaughterhouse or Breakfast–as precisely such a meditation on this intersection of irony and love. In that novel, painter Rabo Karabekian, like Vonnegut, is searching for the proper medium and idiom for authentic artistic expression. He finds the expressive modes available to him denuded and inadequate, emptied-out and disenchanted. After working through a period of amoral realism, then of intense and disconnected abstraction, Karabekian’s final painting is at once a return to realism and a prophetic vision of a redeemed world. His masterpiece, Now It’s the Women’s Turn, represents the newly-dawned European peace at the end of World War II, a moment Vonnegut considered sacred, while imagining an eclipse of militarism and violence by a new day and era of peace and justice. Envisioning alternative futures requires alternative artistic forms; Karabekian, like Vonnegut, looks towards the past to inspire new futures and seeks to forge new aesthetic forms to convey his sense of contemporary life. Bluebeard is great in part because it registers this aesthetic tension between irony and love while seeking new modes and forms of authentic human expression, and it can be read as a model of Vonnegut’s entire sensibility and body of work.
Q: In the essay “Vonnegut and Labor” (published in Jacobin) you recount Vonnegut’s long-standing sympathies for the working class, his admiration for labor leader Eugene Debs, and his support for socialism as a more humane way to organize the world. Casual Vonnegut readers might be unfamiliar with this aspect of his work. Do you see Vonnegut’s socialism as having a major influence on his fiction?
A: Part of what has always drawn us to Vonnegut is this strong ethical and political current of his work. He achieves a sort of avuncular American socialism–he proudly claimed still to believe the lessons he learned in high school civics class. He takes seemingly old-fashioned concepts, such as citizenship and neighborliness and the dignity of labor, quite seriously, and he believes in empowering the American public. “The America I love,” he’s shared, “still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.” Vonnegut publicly identified as a socialist and humanist, and he believed strongly in the humanizing and transformative power of literature and the imagination. For this reason, too, we find Vonnegut an increasingly urgent and necessary voice in our own absurd and shallow late-capitalist moment. While Vonnegut’s politics surface in the overt anti-militarism and anti-capitalism of his work, he also explicitly identifies himself with Eugene V. Debs and celebrates what he sees as the utopian-socialism of the Sermon on the Mount. He taps at once into a deeply American, and Midwestern, tradition of collectivism and populism and also into a bright thread of religious socialism in his sacralization of the human against systems and processes of dehumanization. Vonnegut’s ethical critique of capitalism challenges the priorities of a system which values “little slips of paper” over human beings; a humanist transvaluation of values, perhaps inaugurated by such literature, endeavors to de-center the dollar and re-center human dignity in our misbegotten political, social, and economic landscape. No doubt he’d have much to say to us today.
Q: How did you first discover Vonnegut’s work?
A: I didn’t have quite as strong of a relationship with Vonnegut as Matt did. I, like most Vonnegut fans, read him first in high school. His good-natured irony, but also his nostalgic sentimentality and optimism and his acute sense of still-fresh sorrow, spoke to me, as it speaks to many young people. I am certain that I first heard about “Harrison Bergeron” from a science teacher and read it online. I later revisited this same story in English class one year, which perhaps opened my academic relationship with his writing. I didn’t pick up Slaughterhouse-Five until I was sixteen or seventeen, not too long before Vonnegut himself died. Slaughterhouse-Five beguiled and delighted me, and I continued to read his novels and stories throughout the rest of high school and college. There was also something powerful in first encountering Vonnegut’s work admist the frustration and darkness of the Bush years; Vonnegut is a great anti-war writer, and his ethical irony punctures the conceits of the powerful. His satirical sensibility mobilizes a refreshing hopefulness coupled with an explicitly leftist yearning. Late in his life, Vonnegut lamented that he felt like a “man without a country,” yet his work is so central to how I did and still experience my own American life that reading him can feel like a politically potent and existentially refreshing practice.
Q: The essays from the Vonnegut Summer are insightful and consistently thought-provoking. Were any of the novels more difficult to write about than others? Were there any in which you struggled to find the right approach in your writing?
Wilson: Writing is always a difficult process, and that struggle is at once eased and compounded when approaching such a beloved novel and writer. It’s fun, though, too, to write about novels you love. And the blistering pace of our summer added to the challenge–we read and wrote constantly. But Matt and I were both so hungry to write about Vonnegut that our enthusiasm carried us through some moments of uncertainty. I was intimidated by the beautiful and beguiling complexity, but also by the cultural and critical standing, of Slaughterhouse–writing on it felt significant and momentous, and I hoped to open it up in an interested way. On the other hand, some of his other books are slippery in different ways, and it can be tricky to distill his books comprehensively and clearly, to get a sense of what Vonnegut is doing. (What he writes about Slaughterhouse, that it is “so short and jumbled and jangled,” can apply to most of his novels.) I would often try to pick out specific images or phrases in a book–Vonnegut is particularly fond of repeated motifs and characters across his entire body of work–and try to bead them together on some sort of interpretive thread. It helped that we each wrote an opening essay, which allowed us to explore and clarify our theoretical and critical concerns. It also become easier, in a way, as we gathered momentum in the project after studying more of his novels; we both became sharper at picking out our specific angles and lines through his work and weaving them all together.
Q: How do you evaluate the short fiction within the Vonnegut canon?
Wilson: It is true that Vonnegut’s novels are far more experimental and rich than his short fiction (his short fiction is more constrained by the aesthetic caprices of the midcentury magazines that published them) but his stories often do traffic in similar themes as his novels. Vonnegut’s stories, like his novels, range from somewhat straightforward (for Vonnegut) sci-fi to carefully observed realism; many of them are poignant and moving in familiar ways, while others are deeply unsettling. His stories also allowed Vonnegut an opportunity to work through some of the thematic concerns he would pursue more complexly in his novels. Stories like “Harrison Bergeron,” itself a gem of a short piece, allowed Vonnegut to toy with ideas that would later emerge in his novels–in this case, The Sirens of Titan. I think that Vonnegut’s most perfect and moving short story is “EPICAC,” which offers a condensation of so many of Vonnegut’s concerns about militarism, technology, literature, love, and the human experience, and is written in Vonnegut’s powerful register of hopeful nostalgia. EPICAC is a Cold War supercomputer that falls in love and composes romantic poetry before committing a sort of electronic suicide–a Byronic hero in terra-bytes. I also have a particular affection for “Who Am I This Time?”, a deeply-felt modernist and existential exploration of human identity, authenticity, and performativity in the anxious twentieth century.
Q: Why do you think Vonnegut’s work still seems to have wide appeal?
A: I teach students who continue to discover Vonnegut and cultivate their own relationships with his work. I think Vonnegut’s honesty and optimism are widely appealing, which he cuts with an eviscerating and clear-eyed irony. And despite his sarcasm, Vonnegut is one of the most hopeful and deep-feeling writers around; his writing achieves a compelling and paradoxical marriage of of innocence and wisdom. Vonnegut would frequently defend the transformative power of literature, and I think the power of his authenticity and earnestness is necessary and rare and deeply appealing. And in our cynical and shallow contemporary, Vonnegut’s romanticism, humanism, and optimism resonate powerfully and critically.
Q: The 50th anniversary of the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five has brought a renewed interest in the novel. What are your thoughts about reading it in the current moment?
A: Slaughterhouse-Five reads as urgently and powerfully in 2019 as I’m sure it did in 1969–like its bemused protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, Slaughterhouse has “come unstuck in time” to speak anew to our unsettled contemporary. It continues to imagine a starkly moral vision for human life and well-being; Vonnegut’s humanism still shines brightly amidst a world bloodied by systemic violence and dehumanization. Vonnegut attempts in Slaughterhouse to rescue and redeem a sacred sensibility of human freedom from an inevitable and totalizing catastrophe of history, and he identifies the novel as a “duty-dance with death.” I remain enchanted with and delighted by Vonnegut’s experimentations with form and style in the novel: he attempts to forge a new aesthetic and ethical structure to bear witness to the trauma of history and to reject romanticized narratives of masculinity, war, and violence. And Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode further functions to explode the form of the novel, to deconstruct conventional narratives of history and human life, in order both to bear witness to historical trauma and, in brushing history and against the grain, suggest radical alternatives to our contemporary status quo. Through narrative fragmentation and rupture, Vonnegut at once alludes to the brokenness of history and ourselves while attempting to recreate a lost wholeness.
Of course, the novel spoke so clearly to its cultural moment in 1969, but it speaks no less boldly today. In our catastrophic contemporary underwritten by seemingly interminable war, yawning social and political inequities, increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic political movements, and a numbing and claustrophobic cynicism, Vonnegut’s work still gestures hopefully towards alternate, speculative futures, still dares to imagine a world informed by justice, freedom, and peace. Slaughterhouse-Five remains as sublime, wise, and funny, as timely and timeless, as heartbreaking, as heartwarming, as essential, as it first was fifty years ago.
Q: Any future Vonnegut-related projects in the works? Which other novelists might be good candidates for their own “summer?’
A: I am coming off a summer in which I read an immense amount of Shakespeare, the summer before, Joyce, and, the summer before that, Faulkner. These two modernists (Joyce and Faulkner), like Vonnegut, benefit from this type of sustained immersion into their worlds–in a sense, all of these writers continue to return to the same themes in different ways. Reading multiple novels of the same author becomes immediately a practice in critical re-reading, in approaching and constantly re-approaching, the author him- or herself. Matt and I are both engaged in our own teaching and scholarship and won’t share another “summer” in the near future, but any author who constantly, perhaps obsessively, revisits the same themes or landscape provides such an immersion. Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, yes, and all the modernists, and I am also enchanted by the Knausgaard saga. Other contemporary writers perfect for such a project include Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith. Don DeLillo. Philip Roth. Roberto Bolaño. Gabriel García Márquez. I think a Cormac McCarthy summer could be both awe-inspiring and terrifying. We both love Murakami, and I can imagine a compelling “Wind-Up Bird Summer” with his work. And we were inspired by the work of Infinite Summer, a summer-long collective project to read Infinite Jest–David Foster Wallace would be a great candidate. And while I think a summer of Melville would be amazing, I also think that a focused and collective study of Moby-Dick–especially now, as the United States, “federated along one keel” and captained by a madman, continues to chase our own white whales–could be powerful. And of course, a summer of Shakespeare would be endlessly enriching.
Q: If you had the opportunity to ask Vonnegut a question about his work, what might it be?
A: I would be perhaps less interested in asking Vonnegut about his work itself than to ask him about how the world and his life have influenced his work, about what has inspired his work. I’d want to know what gives him hope. And if Vonnegut were still alive, I would be eager for him to evaluate our political and cultural moment–I think he’d be heartbroken, and I would want to know where he’d go from here. Mainly, I’d just want to chat with him, to hear his jokes, to experience the absurdity of today through his joyful sad eyes.
Wilson Taylor is a high school English teacher and writer currently living in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Jacobin Magazine, and Salon, and he writes occasional tweets at @wilsonltaylor.