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Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Time Event
2:35a
And so it goes ...
This is only the second time that I've been in danger of running up on the “deadline” for getting books reviewed in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. This was “won” in the September 2011 batch, and arrived on October 15th … theoretically we have 3 months before not having a review in will start inhibiting our ability (via “the almighty Algorithm”) to win subsequent books, and so I'm right on the edge of that now.

Unlike a previous E.R. Program book, it's not that I wasn't enjoying reading Charles J. Shields' And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, but it was somewhat longer than a lot of the books I've been reading of late, and got “moved to the back burner”, as it were, while I was trying to push through some shorter reads to make my 72 book target for last year. I will admit, however, that there were parts of this which echoed situations in my life at the moment that made it very uncomfortable reading at times, which also led me to opt for other books.

I understand that this “official” biography of Kurt Vonnegut is not without controversy. Amazingly (if I'm reading the introductory material here correctly), the author only met with his subject twice before his death, and was faced with assembling all the details on Vonnegut's life without the benefit of on-going communications with him. He also, I gather, was stonewalled by certain parts of the family, from those who did not wish to participate at all, to those who would not allow for full access and use of assorted background and accessory information.

Shields had approached Vonnegut a couple of times with the suggestion that they work on a biography, and Vonnegut had “taken a pass” on the concept. However, eventually he relented, having been long irritated that he seemed to have a less “secure” place in history (and in various books, directories, and catalogs) than many other writers. Given the above challenges (Vonnegut suffered the fall from which he never recovered very soon after his second meeting with the author), it is rather remarkable what Shields was able to assemble for this book (there are 55 pages of notes, nearly all dealing with the source of particular bits of information).

Over all, Vonnegut did not have a very happy life. In his youth he was regularly “failing” at things his family expected of him (his lack of a college degree haunted him for decades until he was able to “bargain” for one prior to a teaching assignment), especially compared to his elder brother (who was a noted atmospheric scientist). Family tragedies (his mother's suicide, his sister's early death) also seemed to produce a theme of fatalism in his life. Of course, his most famous life experience (courtesy being the central event of Slaughterhouse-Five) was being a prisoner of war in WW2, and living through the Allied bombing of Dresden … which produced a series of impressions that played a part in both his personality and his writing for the rest of his life.

Success did not come early or easily to Vonnegut, he was considered something of a hack writer producing material for the lower end of the publishing world for many years. Slowly his luck changed and he moved up the scale into better-known national magazines, and eventually into writing books. His family was “complex”, having both his natural kids and nephews whose parents had died (hours apart from one another) living in his household, which for most of the time was just barely functioning on a financial basis.

Vonnegut was fortunate, however, to have had a writing voice which was right for the zeitgeist of the 60's and 70's, and as the years rolled on, his works began to sell and he became very popular as a speaker on very lucrative college tours. Towards the end of his life, his “back catalog” was selling in excess of a hundred thousand copies per year in the US, a remarkable number when you consider that only the top 2% of new books sell as many as 5,000 copies!

Much of the book is given over to detailing family stress, affairs, divorces, and re-marriages, with his last wife being painted in particularly unpleasant tones (perhaps due to her refusal to have anything to do with the biography). As a former publisher, I would have like to have had the bits about his interaction with agents and presses more fleshed out (they are a secondary element here, but the material is more about the relationships he had with various characters in the book business than the inner workings of the business itself), but this would probably not be of much interest to the general reader.

One theme that keeps surfacing is how great a divergence there was between the “public image” of Vonnegut and the man himself. He was perceived as the counter-cultural icon (and philosophically he was that, but more in a liberal “freethought” way), but was given to wearing suits and mixing with “establishment” types. It's suggested here that even his “look” was somehow a pretense … that, having been stylistically compared to Mark Twain, he took to sporting mustache and hair styles reminiscent of Samuel Clemens' alter ego.

In the end, one has mixed feelings about And So It Goes, while the commercial and cultural success of Vonnegut is undeniable, his life was sufficiently stressful and alienated (feelings which creep into the reading), that the take-away is rather uncomfortable. I had a personal connection with one data point here, one of my college professors, Mark Dintenfass, is name-checked in the book in the section dealing with Vonnegut's time teaching at the University of Iowa, when he was a student in the graduate writing program.

This is, of course, very new (Vonnegut only died in 2007), so should be available in your local bookstores, but the on-line guys have it at 35% off of cover. Over the years I'd been somewhat of a fan of Vonnegut, so I'm coming to this with a reasonably solid familiarity with his major works (although I was surprised at the extent that he'd written in vehicles other than the books). I'm guessing that one would at least have to have an active interest in him as a public figure to slog through the 400+ pages of this, as it was fairly uncomfortable read to one for whom the books had “meant something” at one point. If you've been a fan of the books, or of the man (or his public persona), this will certainly give you a new perspective, but I'm suspecting it's “not for everybody”.


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