I will always associate Kurt Vonnegut with Mike. He’s the one who lent me The Sirens of Titan, and it’s his book I’m reviewing again now (or at least it used to be—he gave it to me for my birthday). Armageddon in Retrospect is not your usual Vonnegut novel. This collection includes a letter written by the author as a soldier in 1945, a copy of his last speech in 2007, a nonfiction essay, ten short stories, plus several of his own illustrations.
Vonnegut’s son Mark writes the introduction, but in it he hardly talks about the book. Instead (and more interestingly) he introduces the reader to his father. He paints this picture of Kurt Vonnegut: intensely private man, profound humanist, dedicated writer, enigma to everyone around him. The next pages reveal the author through his own writing. Vonnegut’s nonfiction—even when not meant for publication (like his 1945 letter)—displays a balance of humor and gravity. His letter to his family: a tongue-in-cheek narration of a common (albeit extremely lucky) soldier’s life. His last speech: a series of jokes interspersed with commentaries on world issues. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” offers more sobriety. It is an affecting memoir about the destruction of Dresden, which Vonnegut asserts was “surely among the World’s most lovely cities.” He describes the bombing’s depressing aftermath, with soldiers more interested in personal looting than salvage work, and ends his memoir with the following declaration: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”
The succeeding ten stories share more than just thematic similarity. Judged as traditional fiction, they fail in terms of character (flat, one-sided), but what I like about them is their collective insistence to avert regular standards. Vonnegut’s fiction claims an appraisal based on idea: what it is trying to say and how it is expressed. Imbued with a sense of humor that prevents them from teetering into total seriousness, these stories explore nearly all aspects of war: past and future; us and them; American, German, civilian. But Vonnegut’s vision extends beyond fiction, even beyond words. It reaches into the minds of his readers, for ultimately what we take from this book is nothing but his perspective of the world: what it is, what it can be, what it should be.
Introduction (Mark Vonnegut)
In my early-to-mid-twenties he let it slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren’t nearly that good.
Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.
Guns before Butter
‘Before the war, everybody was overweight, living to eat instead of eating to live. Germany has never been healthier.’
The Unicorn Trap
‘The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!’
If television refuses to look at something, it is as though it never happened.
‘You’re the victors, you know, you’ve got a bloody good right to anything you like.’
The Commandant’s Desk
‘I feel almost as though being alive were something to be ashamed of.’
‘…those who can’t afford beautiful things love the idea of there being such things somewhere.’