Monday, August 17, 2009

Vonnegut in Retrospect

I've been following the oddest, most delayed reading chain lately.  I often read books in a stack about two deep - that is, I'll read one book "in the background," putting it aside whenever a newer book comes along.  I'll finish up that newer book, then possibly continue reading other newer books, until I run out, at which time I'll return to the original book.  It's a little odd, but I've done this for most of my life, so it feels more or less normal to me.

Right now, though, my reading stack is... maybe four or five books deep.  I got some awesome books for my birthday last month, which are making for great background reading; whenever I borrow a book or check one out from the library, though, a timer starts ticking, so I prioritize that book until it's done.

I'm finally unwinding the stack.  I wrapped up "Armageddon in Retrospect," the last book published under Kurt Vonnegut's name.  It was published posthumously, and as his son Mark explains in the introduction, it collects together for the first time a set of letters, speeches, and short stories by Vonnegut on the subject of war.

Ultimately, this is mainly a short story collection, with just a few non-fiction pieces leading the way up front.  It's a pretty fascinating collection... not amazing, and not a must-read, but a great way to get a peek into a great mind while it's developing.

Reading this book felt a lot like reading Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia."  In both cases you can see the authors working through their experiences with war, trying to make sense of their feelings and deciding how to communicate them.  Both books aren't exactly great, but pave the way for masterpieces.

"Homage to Catalonia" leads the way to the rage of "Animal Farm."  "Armageddon in Retrospect" anticipates "Slaughterhouse-Five."  Many of the stories are set in the aftermath of the Dresden firebombing, and Vonnegut's humanism pokes through, struggling to find the proper expression.  He has a difficult task here, which he explicitly described in a speech earlier in the book: how to make clear that one could, without defending Nazism, feel bad about the German babies, women, and cripples who were indiscriminately slaughtered as part of the Allied war effort.

The stories are good, but nothing here is really breathtaking or revolutionary.  Weirdly enough, I thought that the best story was the title story, which is also the one that has least to do with war.  Despite the title, the story "Armageddon in Retrospect" involves no epic battle.  There's a struggle, of a sort, but it's the sort of struggle Vonnegut cares most about: a personal struggle.

Anyways.  This has been a meandering review, but it's a meandering book, so I don't feel bad.  Worth checking out if you're a Vonnegut completist like me.  If you're just looking for some really good Vonnegut short stories, stick with Welcome To The Monkey House instead.

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