Hoping to enhance my appreciation of Vonnegut’s fiction, I decided to change my focus, from his message content and dark tone, to his writing style, which alternately amuses and annoys me.
1. To begin, I note that Vonnegut’s prose is simple, short and direct, to the point of sometimes seeming to be remedial reading. It feels flat and bland, lacking depth, rhythm and texture. It insults the intelligence and sophistication of his readers. Surely, had he just worked harder, could he not have produced more satisfying prose?
2. Another complaint: trying to follow KV’s fragmented, discontinuous plots and wild, random, compounded tangents can be disconcerting. Stories are jumbled, seemingly thrown down on the page like an initial toss of Pick-up Sticks, that popular parlor game from the 50s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pick-up_sticks Is this the work of a disordered mind, or an intentional display of conventions-busting creativity?
3. And should such low-brow, rude and crude verbal imagery, the equivalent of dirty jokes, be deemed literature?
4. Then again, isn’t it overly precious, self-indulgent and self-conscious for an author to reveal himself in his story and gloat about his total control over his characters? Is this not the stuff of cartoonists rather than authors?
5. Finally, what about those dumb drawings?
Having churlishly proposed these criticisms on my own, I set out to see what I could learn about these issues from others.
On the matter of whether Vonnegut was a lazy, careless writer, I found his own testimony on that subject. Even though Vonnegut’s fiction prose seems overly simple to me, the Library of America Edition Chronology indicates (p. 818) that he claimed in 1958 to have worked long and hard, “….hashed out, sentence by sentence.” making it that way. So the end result must be deliberate, even if I don’t find it stimulating. Probably my esthetic deficiency (snobbish elitism?), not his.
For the other issues, I went to the web and sought out the views of real, recognized literary critics. Beyond quotations from book flyleaves and jacket covers, I didn’t find many formal reviews of Vonnegut’s writing, but I did learn that he is considered to be part of a group of fiction writers that are called “Post-Modern,” because they questioned or rejected the high values placed on rationality, science and technology in pre-war literature. In my own profession, at the same time, Post-Modern architectural styles began to challenge the ultra-rational “Less is more” Bauhaus esthetic by introducing classical decoration and motifs, often in whimsical or absurd compositions.
The authors called Post-modern generally published in the years following World War II, and their works characteristically employ farce, irony, metafiction and pastiche. I certainly understand farce, and I think I might understand irony. It’s obvious that Vonnegut employs both techniques extensively. But, not being well-versed in literary stylistic terminology, I had to look up both “metafiction” and “pastiche.’ And sure enough, Vonnegut’s stories are filled with both.
For the convenience of you who also are not certified literature critics, I will tell you what I learned:
— “metafiction” – a narrative device revealing self-awareness, often employing irony and self-awareness that forces readers to acknowledge they are reading a fictional work. Fiction about fiction, which deliberately reflects on itself. This is the role of Philboyd Studge (p. 503) in Breakfast of Champions.
— ” pastiche” – inclusion of subjects or topics previously thought unfit for literature, questioning the distinctions between high and low culture. Vonnegut leaps gleefully into pastiche on the second page of Breakfast of Champions with his “childish” drawing of an asshole.
So now, I’m forced to conclude that my disappointments and annoyances with Vonnegut’s style are uninformed and irrelevant. He is considered a substantial and serious literary figure by the experts who define such things for us “lay readers.” He is assigned to the recognized category of Post-Modern authors, and employs the devices common to them.
Moreover, he received notable recognitions from his literary peers. In 1973, following the publication of “Breakfast,” he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters and received an honorary doctorate in the humanities from Indiana University, Bloomington. (Chronology, p.824)
Now, knowing all of this, I will henceforth be obliged to respect Vonnegut’s writing, even if I really don’t enjoy it. My loss.
But still, how to understand those dumb drawings? The drawings in BoC strike me as childish cartoons; some of them are amusing, but mostly they are superfluous or irrelevant to the associated narrative. What motivated KV to insert them?
The Chronology provides some clues. Vonnegut’s father was an architect, and during the lean years of the early 30’s Great Depression, he supported his family by working as an artist and graphic designer. (p. 812) This heritage must have given Kurt some artistic ambition, apparently first expressed by the drawings in BoC. Later he began to take his drawing more seriously, got coaching for his drawing technique and finally managed to publish his sketches, in collaboration with Louisville KY printmaker Joe Petro III, as limited edition prints. The successful author who began drawing crude felt pen doodles for Breakfast of Champions went on to also become a successful artist.
Now, please excuse me while I go get another helping of humble pie.
I guess you get what you’re looking for. Jim was apparently looking for a profound literary experience. I, on the other hand, was just looking for something easy to read & stimulating to the imagination, & I got it. The cartoonish illustrations were just an added bonus for me.
Kudos to our Deathmarch leader Bill, who patiently tried to drag as many of us along as he could all the way to the final ETC!
Indeed, Bill, thank you! And thank you, Jim, for your enlightening research notes. I, too, got out of it what I was looking for, namely, discovering Vonnegut for the first time. I grew up in France and, shocker, he was not on my childhood / adolescent reading shelf, in or out of school. He was not on college reading lists either when I got my English degree there, a mistake as I would have preferred to read him over some of the others I had to read. People here tell me, somewhat dismissively, that they read him as teens. Seems to me he would be worth reading again as adults.
I was struck by how relevant he still is today and by how prescient he was regarding certain events, such as the small town rampage (minus the guns) at the end of BoC. Taking stock of his life and revealing himself more as he nears 50 was hopefully cathartic to him.
Finished the last “Etc.” at about 6:07 last night. Thanks to all participants, even those who dropped out along the way. Jim, appreciate that you did that research and were willing to modify your opinions — though you have every right to your personal, honest reactions too. I learned a lot about Vonnegut in the course of this, some of it rather surprising, and it was interesting to have a diversity of opinions.
A little brain-dead at the moment. I may add more later, but that’ll do for now.
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