I don’t think that Vonnegut was the kind of writer who constructed new worlds in order to escape his own—the imagined world that permeates his novels seems a brilliant kind of coming to terms with the pains of the reality he experienced. This was achieved usually through the use of the sardonic metaphor, shamelessly dark comedy and terse undermining of glamor and glory. His bold but judicious use of them was revolutionary.
One can no doubt see Vonnegut’s style developing and continuing throughout his correspondences, now collected in a new volume called “Letters.” The compilation surveys Vonnegut’s entire adult life, organized by decade, beginning with his return from the war in the ’40s, ending with his death in the ’00s. In reading “Letters,” it quickly becomes clear that Vonnegut’s narrative voice was a seamless extension of himself. His mode of communication was always partial to a sort of paralipsis (mentioning by not mentioning)—his refusal of sentimentality in his life and writing actually called attention to sentimentality itself. He conceived a voice such that when it comes to emotion, the lack is more powerful than substance might be.
The memorable “so it goes” refrain from Slaughterhouse Five is a delightful example of the trivialization of the horrors of war which was so iconic of Vonnegut. It seems that there was a real-life manifestation of the “so it goes” mentality, recounted in one of the first letters in the collection, written not by Kurt but by his Uncle Alex Vonnegut, to Kurt’s cousin Ella: “In the distance we saw a tall lad approaching, carrying a big heavy bag. Could it be Kay? Those long legs. It might be; it was! We let Alice go to meet him. A hug and a kiss. ‘Now, no emotions, please!’ Kay pleaded.”
“Letters” provides an interactive biography of Kurt Vonnegut, while also revealing or confirming conceptions about his goals in creating literature. Before he became a renowned author, Vonnegut was working towards a Master’s degree in anthropology, which he did not actually succeed in acquiring until he published Cat’s Cradle in 1963, which The University of Chicago considered adequate qualification for the degree.
“Stories” were especially important to Vonnegut, not in the obvious way that stories are important to any novelist, but in that he had a tremendous capacity as a writer to essentialize a large idea in a self-contained, paragraph-long, anecdotal story, within the larger stories that were his novels.
In a letter to his wife discussing his teaching job at The University of Iowa, he contended that his students’ inability to write “simply and clearly” was not “the fault of their previous teachers. It is their own fault: they have no stories to tell. I am going to take them on walks, and make them look at people.” While Vonnegut clearly concerned himself with “looking at people” and recording the harsh reality around him, and successfully expressed certain universal truths in his work, most of his writing was also deeply personal.
On occasion this has made writing a struggle for Vonnegut, who wrote in a letter to his friend and editor at Scribner’s Harry Brague, “The trouble seems to be that I’m a compulsive, irrational writer, rarely on top of the creative process, but that my id, or whatever it is that Hemingway and Faulkner get in touch with way down deep, down among the dead men, isn’t a very interesting one—not even to me.” Vonnegut’s disregard of traditional intensity and emotion was arguably what made is literature so successful and intellectually fascinating.
In the spirit of Vonnegut, I will give away the ending of the book. Wakefield tells us that these were the last words of advice Vonnegut wrote to be delivered to an audience: “And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one…I’m out of here.”