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And so it goes...(sigh)
on April 1, 2008
Vonnegut is an American treasure. He was the Mark Twain of my generation, and I'm confident that he'll continue to be read and admired by future ones. But not everything that even an author like Vonnegut writes needs to see the light of day. And if Vonnegut himself chose not to publish certain manuscripts during his lifetime, that sends off a pretty good signal.
Which brings us to Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous (one of many to come?) collection of twelve unpublished pieces related to war. (The entire collection is prefaced by Vonnegut's final speech, which after his death was read by his son Mark to the gathering that commissioned it. If it actually had been given by Vonnegut, it probably would've been hilarious; delivery is everything. But in print, it's a rather tedious litany of flat one-liners.) Many of the pieces are inspired by Vonnegut's World War II experience as a prisoner of war, the same one that birthed his incomparable Slaughterhouse-Five. But these stories, unlike the novel, are...well, at best mildly interesting and insightful. The only one that really measures up to the Vonnegut genius is the title piece, "Armageddon in Retrospect." Less good but still respectable are "Great Day" and "Happy Birthday, 1951." But other pieces in the collection, such as "Just You and Me, Sammy" and "Brighten Up" are just awful: mechanical in style, predictable in plot.
What does come across in these hitherto unpublished writings is the humanist Vonnegut's deep hatred of war. (In the collection's Introduction, son Mark tells us that Vonnegut became depressed and hopeless when the current war in Iraq broke out.) The quality of the stories anthologized here may be uneven, but their passionate indictment of what war does to the soldiers and civilians who live through it is itself eloquent.
But is it eloquent enough to warrant the publication of these pieces? I dunno. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree on that one. But I do hope that Vonnegut's literary executors will think long and hard before publishing every scribble he left behind. Even geniuses like Vonnegut had their bad writing days.
And by the way, Kurt: I miss ya.