KURT VONNEGUT doesn’t want any part of contemporary culture. Or, at least, that’s what he says. At 82, he’s lived through some of the worst history has to offer, from the firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II -- which he survived as a 22-year-old POW -- to the attack on the World Trade Center and what he sees as the collapse of American values beneath an avalanche of public and private greed.
“Look,” he says by phone from his home in Manhattan, his voice robust but rheumy, as befits someone who has smoked for 70 years. “I think we’re a very bad idea. Look at the 20th century. You’ve got the Holocaust, two world wars, Hiroshima. Let’s just call it off.”
In a certain sense, Vonnegut is exaggerating to make a point here, much as he has throughout his career. His first novel, “Player Piano,” published in 1952, foresaw the dehumanizing effects of conformity and mechanization, while “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969) -- commonly regarded as his masterwork -- spun cosmic comedy out of the author’s experiences in Dresden, using the war to trigger all sorts of absurdities as his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, literally comes “unstuck in time.”
As he’s grown older, however, Vonnegut’s humor has become increasingly despairing, even bleak. In an essay published last year in “The Future Dictionary of America,” he wrote, “Only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice,” and in his new book, “A Man Without a Country,” he takes the idea even further, noting that “Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn’t even seen the First World War.... Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too.”
Still, for all the pessimism of such a comment, the existence of “A Man Without a Country” suggests that there’s another side to the story, that, for Vonnegut, hope continues to exert a pull. In 1997, following the publication of his 14th novel, “Timequake,” he very publicly retired from the writer’s trade, claiming that he no longer had anything to say.
“Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was 55. Enough!” he wrote then, in a preface. “My father was sick and tired of architecture when he was 55. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now.” Asked why, eight years later, he’s decided to make a comeback, the author barks out a wheezy laugh. “I’ve lived a long time,” he says. “I didn’t mean to live so long; it was a graceless thing to do. But what am I going to do with myself? This is what I do.”
For Vonnegut, of course, retirement is a relative concept; he’s hardly been inactive, after all. In 1999, he published a volume of previously uncollected short fiction from the 1950s and 1960s called “Bagombo Snuff Box,” as well as two short books of ephemera, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” and “Like Shaking Hands With God.” He’s also continued to make speeches -- often at university commencements -- and a few years ago he began to contribute to the Chicago-based progressive magazine In These Times, commenting on the increasingly dire state of the world.
Although “A Man Without a Country” has its roots in those essays and public statements, it is, at heart, a different type of project, fuller, more integrated, not a collection of loose ends so much as a testament. “Kurt is very engaged with the history of the moment,” says Dan Simon, publisher of New York’s Seven Stories Press, which is issuing the book. “He has passionate feelings about being alive today.”
Certainly, “A Man Without a Country” is as overtly political a book as Vonnegut has written, a lament for an America that is no longer, in which, the author argues, social justice has been subsumed by war and fear. At the same time, it may be as close as Vonnegut ever comes to a memoir, with its mix of autobiography and social commentary, its reflections on topics as varied as our fossil fuel addiction and longtime heroes like Twain and labor and political leader Eugene V. Debs. In the end, Simon suggests, the best way to think of it may be as “a Tralfamadorian novel,” a reference to “Slaughterhouse-Five,” part of which takes place on a planet where books are written “in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.... Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message -- describing a situation, a scene.... There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”
To some degree, this description applies to all of Vonnegut’s writing, his very aesthetic, as it were. From the beginning, he has produced books that jump around in time and space, that telegraph their endings while weaving together bits of fantasy, history, self-revelation in an elusive but deeply moving whole. As such, “A Man Without a Country” is not so much a departure as a continuation, or, more accurately, a summing up. The book doesn’t really break new ground; in a few places, it even recycles material, as in this elegy for the planet (adapted from his 1990 novel, “Hocus Pocus”): “The good Earth -- we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” That’s OK, however, for Vonnegut has something else in mind, which is to ask some difficult questions about who we are and what we’ve become.
“Where are Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln when we need them?” he writes. “They were country boys from Middle America, and both of them made the American people laugh at themselves and appreciate really important, really moral jokes. Imagine what they would have to say today.” Yet even here, Vonnegut can’t help tempering his gloom with a tendril of, if not optimism, then faith, or at least forbearance, as if he’s debating the issue with himself.
“You don’t have to imagine what they would have to say,” he admits in conversation. “They’re saying it right now if you read them. This is one of the beautiful things about print. There is comfort to be found in the writings. Go to the library and find comfort there.” Then, he cites Albert Camus, whom he calls “my favorite Nobel Prize winner”: “Camus said life is so absurd, it’s perfectly ridiculous. The only question is whether or not to keep going. So we keep going anyway, and from moment to moment try to behave like Jesus, doing good unto others as much as we can.”
On the surface, it’s odd to hear Vonnegut invoke Jesus; he is the honorary president of the American Humanist Assn., after all. But this just speaks to the larger message of “A Man Without a Country” -- and, indeed, of Vonnegut’s entire career -- which is to tell the truth as he sees it, without regard to ideology. “How do humanists feel about Jesus?” he wonders in these pages. “I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’ ” (He also has what should be the last word on another subject: “Evolution is so creative. That’s how we got giraffes.”)
This, Vonnegut believes, is the writer’s obligation, to make connections, to offer insights, to ask essential questions, even (or especially) if the answers remain unknown. “We walk around,” says Simon, “with an exhausting awareness of a darkness we don’t want to acknowledge or even have words for. And Kurt says to us, ‘You’re not alone. I feel this too, and it’s all right. You can say it.’ ”
As to how that works, “A Man Without a Country” offers a deceptively simple example, in a chapter in which Vonnegut maps the story arcs of a number of classic tales. After looking at “Cinderella” and Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (“It’s a pessimistic story,” he notes, in a classic understatement), Vonnegut moves on to “Hamlet,” which, he argues, is a profound exploration of the human condition, despite having no particular message or moral, no lesson about how we ought to live. “There’s a reason we recognize ‘Hamlet’ as a masterpiece; it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth,” he writes, “and people so rarely tell us the truth.... The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”
Ultimately, this idea brings Vonnegut back full circle, to his retirement and beyond. It may be the case, as he says, that “ink on paper is no way to communicate,” but according to Simon, another book is a distinct possibility, given all the material that was left out here. Either way, Vonnegut continues to work in other media, creating “full-page, hand-lettered” silk-screen broadsides with Kentucky artist Joe Petro III, several of which are reproduced in the book.
“Kurt is the living embodiment of the fact that we never know what the future will bring,” Simon says. For his part, Vonnegut sees it differently, arguing that the future may already be locked down. “Look,” he says, “you’ve got to realize that we don’t want to be here. Everything we do tells you that. Life is too hard and it’s getting harder. It hurts too much, and almost everybody fails. Even the evangelicals believe this. That’s why they talk about the Rapture. They’d just as soon it ended too.”
Still, he acknowledges, he feels “an urgency to be a good citizen, to draw people’s attention to things, to function as a canary in a coal mine.” What he’s talking about is the capacity to look ahead, to think in terms of possibility, albeit in spite of ourselves. “I’m whistling as I walk past the graveyard,” Vonnegut says, “and I’m whistling as beautifully as I can.”