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Donald E. Morse. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American.

Donald E. Morse. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American.

Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. xxi + 203 pp. $64.95 (cloth).

THE NOVELS OF KURT VONNEGUT bears the usual marks of the criticism on the subject: honest, solid scholarship grounded in fine close readings of individual texts and backed up by thorough research on the author's life, career, well-known and not so well-known publications, interviews, speeches, and so forth. Indeed, Donald E. Morse's book proves one more time that the Vonnegut industry is in full swing, with prominent critics like Jerome Klinkowitz leading the scholarly pack now as thirty years ago (a new Vonnegut monograph by Klinkowitz is forthcoming from U of South Carolina P). Besides Klinkowitz, Peter J. Reed and Morse himself, author of a Reader's Guide to Kurt Vonnegut, are among the names that come to mind first. Some Vonnegut critics have bitten the bullet and theorized in the margins of his texts, and it bears pointing out that this approach need not be necessarily abusive. After all, the writer himself has dwelt upon "theories," ideologies, scientific paradigms, and similar matters. But arguably, his stance could be called, if not anti-theoretical, then at least skeptical, incredulous toward catch-all formulas, free-floating abstractions, and unchecked deductions. To his credit, Vonnegut has been unflinchingly on the side of the human exception. His approach has been rather inductive; his implicit advice to his readers: historicize (not "always," just adequately, as the case may be).

Like others, Morse responds to the call of Vonnegut's work with an inductive (xiv) and historicizing, rather than theorizing method. His book is by and large a fairly chronologically structured discussion of Vonnegut's novels. The critical survey has a focus, albeit not particularly tight. "The emphasis of this study," Morse announces in the Preface, "falls ... on the value of reading Vonnegut's novels, their relation to American experience, and their distinguishing features as fiction." But, as far as literary representation of "American experience" goes, there is no "zero degree" culturally and historically speaking; the postmodern Vonnegut has not, and could have not, started with a clean slate. For half a century, he has imagined and re-imagined this experience in direct and indirect intertextual dialogue with a prestigious tradition. "I have attempted," Morse goes on, "to draw parallels between and distinctive affinities with Vonnegut's work and that of other American authors, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century attempted to imagine a new American literature and culture free from the influence and constraints of Europe--one that would sound its 'barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.' Vonnegut imagining being an American in the second half of the twentieth century does so against the backdrop of their partial, if considerable, achievement" (xiv).

Vonnegut's popularity in the academy and, more significantly still, outside its ivory walls bears out Morse's thesis. Readers of all categories have sensed that a major, publicly relevant undertaking is afoot in Vonnegut's work, a project that, fictional as it may be, speaks to a central collective anxiety: the anxiety of self-representation, the dilemma of collective identity, the question, simply put, of what it means to be an American in the second half of the American century. Morse shows that Vonnegut has identified early on in his career the main issues, problems, and historical crises whose literary treatment are likely to yield the best answers. The constant focus on World War II, the Bomb, the Vietnam episode, the Cold War, on the one hand, then science, technology, ecology, public life and institutions, on the other, has gradually made him one of the most representative writers of our time. In fact, the critic maintains in the Introduction that "Vonnegut may well be the representative American writer of the latter half of the twentieth century" (1) for the generation of readers living through the Depression, witnessing, if not fighting in, World War II, then coping with the fifties, their corporate ambiguities, technological expansion, social inequities, dubious politics, and so on. "Novel writing doesn't breed serenity": this is the epigraph to Morse's second chapter, but it would apply, I think, to the whole book because it renders justice to Vonnegut's entire oeuvre. The critic insists, the contemporary novelist "remains," not unlike Twain, "profoundly disturbed by the values of the society in which he finds himself" (19). And also like Twain, Vonnegut is intent upon "disturbing" his readers. His novelistic work has consistently had shock value ever since Player Piano (1952). To be sure, Vonnegut sets out to rock the boat of our deepest beliefs, raise questions and question comfortable answers regarding who we are or want to be. As Morse observes, one registers a sort of "shift in attitude and tone" (23) between pre-Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) novels--with Player Piano, Cat " s Cradle, and Mother Night among the most popular--and the later novels. The former tend to accept, rather pessimistically, the presence of evil in history. The latter seem to be challenging this presence more forcefully by zeroing in on particular agents of suffering and destruction on a somehow more optimistic note, which lays emphasis on "human kinship and love" (23).

Still, the satiric, black humoresque, dystopian rather than utopian vision holds sway throughout. Vonnegut never quite abandons his criticism of American society and culture. His view of Americanness is, one more time, criticist in nature, deployed negatively by limning extreme situations and gloomy possibilities. Player Piano, which pays intertextual homage to Twain--and to a whole tradition that goes back to Montesquieu and Voltaire--uncovers the dehumanizing potential of computerization (33) and asks, What happens to us when who and what we are is no longer decided by humans? Would we still boast an agency, an identity at all? But then, even if we are still making the decisions--the discoveries, progress, etc.--are these decisions is the progress to our advantage? Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Deadeye Dick, and other novels document vividly our penchant for technological, nuclear, or ecological self-annihilation, deeonstructing our self-congratulatory tales to expose their underbellies, the untold and unspeakable tradeoffs, the price we pay for our questionable victories. Further, Mother Night asks, is this identity unchanged, stable, one? What about Howard W. Campbell's? How American was he when he was passing himself off--so successfully--as a Nazi sympathizer (and vice versa) (53-58)? Or, as Vonnegut invites us to ask ourselves in the post-evolutionary (devolutionary?) fable Galapagos and elsewhere, are we not better off by identifying ourselves with, and perhaps becoming, a different species, "posthuman"? Morse reminds us that some critics have found the Galapagos scheme implausible. But, he is also right to respond, this is hardly the point. The point does not lie in the verisimilitude of the mock-Darwinian metamorphoses involved but in the force of a critical vision that uses biological metaphors and other sci-fi, utopian, and dystopian projections to "disturb" us, to puncture our uncritical pipedreams. Morse has done a fine job of casting light on this defining aspect of Vonnegut's work.

Christian Moraru

University of North Carolina, Greensboro
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Author:Moraru, Christian
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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