Once more I’m in the unhappy position of writing harsh things about someone whose work otherwise has my unqualified admiration…
Readers may recall my earlier piece on Whitney Terrell’s ‘The King of Kings County,’ a brilliant novel of manners set in Kansas City’s upper crust.
This time I’m squaring off against a critic named William Deresiewicz who wrote an essay a year ago in The Nation on Kurt Vonnegut. (The essays he penned on Joseph Conrad for The New Republic and on elite colleges for The American Scholar are so good I have shared them with many friends and acquaintances.)
The fact that the Vonnegut article appeared in The Nation, a publication that has never come to grips with its Stalinist past, was an early warning sign. The choice of Vonnegut for reappraisal was itself also suspect, and may have had more to do with nostalgia by Mr. Deresiewicz, born in 1964, for a sixties he never experienced than measured literary judgment.
As I told my son, when forcing him to watch a video of “Billy Jack,” you have to see for yourself how bad that era was. It was in that spirit that I reluctantly agreed to read “Slaughterhouse Five” for a book club I belonged to, which is also how I came across The Nation essay by Deresiewicz.
Mr. Deresiewicz is honest enough to dismiss most of Vonnegut’s writing pre-Slaughterhouse as juvenile and inchoate in its message. He also notes the elements that mar those prior efforts, a sort of dime store nihilism, coupled with moral relativism on steroids (“If even Nazis cannot see themselves as evil, then how can we be sure that we aren’t evil, too?” This may have sounded profound in 1971 in a college dorm room at 2:00 a.m. under the influence of cannabis sativa but now it just sounds moronic.) Deresiewicz, however, insists that it is these very qualities that make Slaughterhouse Five “an exquisitely realized work of art.”
The only thing he can point to in “Slaughterhouse Five” that gives it any sort of credibility is that it reflects Vonnegut’s own experience as an American POW in World War II who survived the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany.
That ain’t chopped liver, any more than Stendhal’s witnessing Waterloo, or James Jones’s presence at Pearl Harbor. However, it’s what you do with that credibility now that you’ve got the reader’s attention that ultimately matters, not whether you were entitled to it in the first place.
And it’s precisely because “Slaughterhouse Five” is so much Vonnegut’s own story that it fails so objectively. For the undeniable truth is that Kurt Vonnegut, and his alter-ego in the book, Billy Pilgrim, are distinctively unsympathetic as individuals.
Vonnegut’s world is “mad, indifferent, arbitrary and cruel.” All human effort is doomed to failure. There are no absolutes except the “universal urge to self-delusion.” In other words Vonnegut himself is the classic intellectual. He loves “The People,” it’s just individual human beings that he despises. Throughout the book he makes innumerable snide comments about ordinary people, i.e. one woman character is dismissed as having “a 103 IQ,” another as “just a high school graduate.” People are mocked for lowbrow tastes, e.g. ‘Almond Joy’ and ‘Three Musketeer’ candy bars, ‘Barca-Lounger’ chairs, etc.
Vonnegut, the product of a wealthy and educated background, is very angry and frustrated with the American working class, as embodied in the enlisted men he encountered in the army and excoriated in “Slaughterhouse Five” (“a mass of undignified poor”).
They should be angrier with their plight! They don’t blame the rich for their suffering! They insist on taking personal responsibility for their situation! They still believe in rising through hard work! They worship success and look up to those who have risen! Their real crime, of course, is that they have not Questioned Authority (as the bumper stickers in most college towns say) and replaced The Establishment with people like himself-intellectuals.
It never occurred to Mr. Deresiewicz to note that “the subversion of books like Catch 22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “the psychedelic space wisdom of books like….Jonathan Livingston Seagull” look pretty lame in hind-sight. (He is happy to include Vonnegut in that confederacy of dunces with no sense of irony.)
I thought of Vonnegut, Heller, and the collective wisdom of the sixties a few years ago when I was leaving a movie theater after seeing Steven Spielberg’s D-Day epic, “Saving Private Ryan.” It was in East Hampton, New York, an affluent resort town with a substantial Jewish population. Two young men were filing out right in front of me, when one turned to the other and said; “Remember, all those people died for absolutely nothing!” After all, what if they “gave a war and nobody came?” It might be a world ruled by the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, etc., but who are we to say we’re any better? This is truly the legacy of Vonnegut and his ilk, not just the cynicism and sordidness of their books. Someone as intelligent and well-informed as William Deresiewicz should know better.