Vonnegut's life, like a bug in amber
In April 2011, the Library of America permanently established Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, in the literary firmament with its publication of Novels and Stories: 1963-1973, a collection of four of Vonnegut’s most popular novels and a selection of his stories, interviews and speeches. While Vonnegut might have welcomed this recognition, he might also have made light of it with his typically playful harpooning of all matters related to the literary establishment.
As Charles Shields’ crisply delivered and exhaustively detailed new biography, And So It Goes, makes abundantly clear, the enigmatic Vonnegut both relished and loathed literary fame. Writing never came easy for him, and in the early ’50s he struggled at it mightily, for he didn’t have a clear vision of the audience he wanted to reach. He aimed at both the high-paying markets, such as The New Yorker, and the lower-paying pulp magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, to which his writing was much better suited. In August 1952, Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, which introduced many of the themes that would dominate the rest of his literary output. In this novel, Vonnegut demonstrates his love of debunking fixed ideas and institutions that are usually treated with reverence: in this case, General Electric. His characters—as they were in the novels up through Slaughterhouse-Five, at least—are people struggling to avoid corruption and the traps laid for them by circumstance or the environment.
Drawing on interviews with Vonnegut—conducted mostly in the last year of his life—and his family and friends, along with more than 1,500 letters, Shields deftly traces Vonnegut’s life from his early grief over the loss of his mother, his struggles with his siblings and his recognition that humor could get him noticed, to his horrific experiences as a POW in Dresden in WWII and his quite meteoric rise and fall as a novelist. Vonnegut’s work peaked with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, and, as Shields points out, the novels that appeared after this popular success were not nearly as well received nor as critically acclaimed, in part because these later books tended to bog down in autobiographical diatribes.
Vonnegut once said that he kept losing and regaining his equilibrium, and Shields dexterously captures the ups and downs of Vonnegut’s life and work in this definitive biography.