Book review: ‘And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life’ by Charles J. Shields
And So It Goes
Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt: 544 pp., $30
It’s dangerous to begin a biography with what amounts to an advertisement for oneself. “Someone else could cobble together a so-so version of your life just by mining what’s stored in library boxes and electronic files. And it will happen soon, I think,” Charles J. Shields writes in the introduction to “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life,” quoting a note he sent his then-potential-subject in summer 2006. “But I’m the guy for the job — for doing it right, that is. … And I’m a damn good researcher and writer.”
What we have here is the literary equivalent of a come-on, Shields buttering up Vonnegut, appealing to his vanity. But it also raises elusive questions, such as: What is the connection between biographer and biographee? And: Who is all this really about? To his credit, Shields removes himself from the book once he finishes the introduction, but an afterimage lingers, like residue.
Vonnegut died at 84 in April 2007; Shields met with him on only two occasions, and then, in an irony worthy of the author’s fiction, was left to “cobble together” a version of the life. “After [Vonnegut’s] death,” he writes, “I tried, repeatedly, by phone and mail, to talk to [Jill] Krementz about her late husband, but I never heard from her. In addition, Mark Vonnegut, acting as co-executor of the Vonnegut estate, refused to allow me to quote directly from two hundred and fifty-eight of his father’s letters that I received from his correspondents, most of them never before seen.”
For this reason, perhaps, “And So It Goes” is a problematic portrait, sketchy and pedantic by turns. Even without Vonnegut, Shields has done a lot of research, but although he loads the book with information, he never develops an integrated overview. We see Vonnegut as a child and as a high school student, see him go off to World War II. We see him taken prisoner and surviving the firebombing of Dresden, an experience that led to his 1969 breakthrough novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” We see the aftermath of his rise to fame in the late 1960s, the burden of his cult hero status, his conviction in his later years that he had run out of things to say.
Still, if “And So It Goes” admirably avoids hagiography, it also steers clear of any real sense of who Vonnegut was. Shields makes noise early about his subject’s sense of being overlooked, a feeling that went back to his relationship with his parents and his older brother Bernard, a noted physicist who died in 1997. During their final meeting, Vonnegut asked Shields to look up his name in Webster’s Dictionary; when Shields couldn’t find it, he directed him to look up Jack Kerouac.
The implication is that Kerouac (or Norman Mailer or Nelson Algren or Truman Capote, all of whom make cameos in these pages) was taken more seriously than Vonnegut, whose early work was ghettoized as science fiction, published in slick magazines and cheap paperbacks. Yet while it’s true that, as late as 1965, when he took a job teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “all of his novels, except his most recent, ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,’ were out of print,” by the early 1970s, Vonnegut had become a literary superstar. That’s one of the many interesting narratives here, and Shields’ inability to get at its nuances reveals a blind spot at the biography’s core.
That blind spot asserts itself most aggressively when it comes to Vonnegut’s writing. Part of the intention, I suppose, is to make this a critical biography; certainly, Shields comments on each book, from the author’s 1952 debut novel, “Player Piano,” to his final effort, the essay collection “A Man Without a Country,” published in 2005. Such accounts, though, are largely vestigial, a bit of plot synopsis, a sense of the reaction and a summary of themes. Nowhere does Shields evoke the process of creation, except to say that Vonnegut could be a terror when working — “With the pressure on him to produce,” he writes of his situation in the late 1950s, “Kurt labored in his study, emerging occasionally for a sandwich in the kitchen and to yell up the stairs, ‘What the hell are you kids doing up there? Shut the hell up!’” — and nowhere does he really dig into the implications of the work.
His account of “Slaughterhouse-Five” is instructive, since this is a book Vonnegut carried with him for years. He admits as much in the opening chapter of the novel, citing a conversation with a friend’s wife, who was angry that the book might glorify war. Shields also refers to that conversation but leaves out one key line: “Mary,” Vonnegut tells the woman, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away.” Here, we see the struggle to get the book right, to become the writer he wanted to be.
This is the key to the Vonnegut story — not just to the novel but also to the life. Dresden transformed him, highlighting the absurdity of a world where reason, logic, faith were meaningless. How, in such a landscape, to maintain hope, love, humor, meaning? How to get along? When Shields writes that, for Vonnegut, “the truth was useless … What he needed to communicate was the delirium created by his sense of chaos,” he gets it exactly wrong. Truth is not useless; it’s essential, especially in an amoral universe. That’s the message Vonnegut was affirming: The only response to chaos is to face it, to try to find a way to persevere.
At best, this is a futile process, which is why as he got older, Vonnegut became, in his own words, an “intolerably unfunny” pessimist. His later novels (beginning with 1976’s “Slapstick”) fall flat under such a burden, although his essays, first collected around this time in “Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons” (1974), grow increasingly sharp. Shields misses that also, dismissing the nonfiction as an afterthought.
He does offer compelling images of Vonnegut’s home life — his relationships with his kids and with the three nephews he took in during the 1950s, after his sister and her husband died — and his portrait of Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, is delightful, framing her as the most sympathetic figure in the book. Yet even here, he moves too quickly, tracing the complexities without letting us see them for ourselves. The result is a biography in which, Shields’ opening salvo to the contrary, we never do get close enough to its subject’s beating heart.
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