by Kurt Vonnegut
Bloomsbury | February 2006 | ISBN 0747584060
Recommended by Robert Cawston:
This is a dreadful book. The author has nothing to teach us anymore about our world. He is past his prime and any pearls of wisdom sink beneath a sea of confused grumblings and mumblings.
I am kidding.
And now a confession: I stole that trick from Kurt Vonnegut and his new book A Man Without a Country. But, as much as I would love to do so, it would be hard to keep up the impersonation for long. Part whimsical autobiography, part angry and disillusioned state of the union address, this short work may be the final chance to experience the great American author's unique writing and view of the world. At the grand old age of eighty-three Vonnegut may now admit that he can't "parallel park worth a damn" but he is still capable of the kind of epigrammatic insights that most authors would give their writing arm for.
Just as his infamous novel Slaughterhouse-Five was no conventional war narrative, Vonnegut's "memoirs" never read as a straight autobiography. He never tries to give us any definitive statements, any final summations of his work or the absurd conundrum that has been life. As he is wont to say to his grandchildren, "don't look at me, I only just got here". Interspersed amongst anecdotal remembrances are doodles, ditties, replies to reader's letters, book recommendations, jokes and quotes.
At one point he plots graphs of different narratives, fortune against time. For example, although Kafka's Metamorphosis takes a simple downward plunge from ill-fortune towards infinity ("it's a pessimistic story"), Cinderella fares considerably better. At the end things swing her way towards "off-the scale happy". Most narratives, he notes, end up with more good fortune than at the start that's the way people like things. Plotting the world around him though, Vonnegut sees little reason to be optimistic.
Humour as a defence mechanism against the ill-fortune of the world can only go so far. There is real anger here at the state of the planet and a realisation that "the shit has hit the air-conditioning big-time, big-time". We have trashed the joint and Vonnegut sees little way back. He seems to have given up on the future and on human beings even putting in a request for his epitaph to read "Life is no way to treat an animal".
He is at his angriest and most satirical when looking around at George W Bush's America. A sleazy "keystone-cops style coup" by failed Yale students, an addiction to oil, the "progress" of war, a nation that has moved beyond all humanness and reason led by three men named "Bush, Dick and Colon". All these things have left him feeling a stranger in a land he once fought for, a man now asking, "who the hell's country is this anyway?"
Despite his horror at the mess humans have made of this world Vonnegut manages to retain a fascination of the human species and the simple absurdities of life. And so we are left to muddle through ("we do, doodily do, doodily do, what we must, muddily must, muddily must ") relying on a pseudo Christianity-come-humanism: a supplication to "be honourable", paste the Sermon on the Mount on the wall and believe above all that "you've gotta be kind!"
No big revelation there, you may be thinking. So why should you read this book? Looking at Hamlet Vonnegut concludes that, because every incident is "neither good nor bad", Shakespeare is a poor teller of stories. However, he always sought to tell the truth because in life we can never tell "what is the good news and what is the bad news". For Vonnegut, the hope for his country and the planet lies in this desire to speak out the truth. It is a desire that still exists at the front desks of America's public libraries and in the pages of the books seeking to respond directly to life itself, however good or bad, whether "between Cinderella or Kafka's Cockroach". This is one such book. Plus, it's shorter than Hamlet.
About the author: Kurt Vonnegut is one of the few grandmasters of American letters, one without whom the very term American literature would mean much less than it does. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on 11 November, 1922. He lives in New York City and Bridgehampton, with his wife, the author and photographer Jill Krementz. His website is at www.vonnegut.com. For A Man Without a Country and Kurt Vonnegut's other works, click here.