Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

The end is only the beginning.
So it goes. 
When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 I was bereft; having nothing new by Kurt Vonnegut to read was something that I felt unprepared to face and I didn't know what to do about it. Possessed by my habitual fanaticism (tempered only by financial constraint and - now - issues of logistics) I had already scooped up as much of his work as I could find and had only one or two left to read. This included a first edition paperback of Between Time and Timbuktu, a made-for-TV film script published in 1972 based on several of Vonnegut's shorter pieces, and another first ed. hard back of Sun Moon Star, ostensibly a re-telling of the nativity story as inspired by the simple drawings of Ivan Chermayeff. Those I had yet to read were going to have to be strictly rationed, drip fed over the course of years so as not to drain the source dry prematurely. What would happen when all was read? 

It would now seem there are more posthumous collections of previously "unpublished" work than I could have imagined were possible. At the time you can understand why I was a little anxious and then relieved when Look At The Birdie was announced. A final, joyful dribble of sustenance! Of course, the question I should have asked myself (which I have since done seeing as how everyone is publishing previously unreleased works by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr - including his columns from the Cornell Sun...) was why? Why didn't Vonnegut publish these stories before he died? Did he run out of time? Was it in his "to do" list but too far down (after smoking himself to death) to actually get done? Or, as a relentless reviser of his own work, was this stuff simply not good enough to pass the censor? I suspect the latter. 

What we have here is a collection with all the trademark Vonnegut-ness - the narrative driving ever onwards, the darkly comic pseudo-misanthropic humanism, the twist at the end - and it is a collection that adds to the oeuvre rather than detracts from it.  However, it's not quite up to ...Monkey House or even Wampeters... Characters are clear, situations defined, stories sharp-ish for the most part, but when I think of Breakfast of Champions or, more poignantly, Mother Night and compare the emotional resonance and the lasting after effects, ...Birdie just doesn't come close. Without the book at hand I struggle to remember even the best of the crop, rather recalling the oddest or most discordant (a hypnotist and a tower ballroom full of mirrors standing out as an exemplar). I'm not upset, just disappointed.

Jesus was a star. Joseph might
have been a triangle.
As a collector with the trembling panic of an OCD hoarder, I would have bought this even if it had Harold Bloom saying "Shit, don't buy!" on the cover. I'm not ashamed to say I'm still in the market for a DVD copy of Breakfast of Champions starring Bruce Willis, something I believe Kurt wished had never seen the light of day. Where a bright editor with an eye for something completely worthwhile might pull from obscurity a forgotten manuscript which instantly changes the literary marketplace, I can see the merits of publishing posthumously that which an author did not believe to be ready or even good enough. What disturbs me is when the hack trolls go trawling through the desk drawers and dusty corners of the offices of dead writers for anything they can bind and flog to an already bloated market, often "finding" utterly irrelevant and sometimes irreverent rubbish which was destined for the recycling. I appreciate the hypocrisy in what I'm saying so please don't pick me up on it. I am ashamed to be fuelling said market. But it's often the case that the relative merit of a work is not really exposed until it's been bought and read. 

That's better.
Now, I'm not saying this collection is that bad. It certainly isn't, and is in fact quite good! As a starter for 10 it would be a fine introduction to the work of a rather excellent American author, but it is not the polished prose I've come to expect, and that is rather my fault. Previous rant notwithstanding, I'm a victim of my own expectations, so lah-de-dah etc. and so on. In future I must consider context as well as content.

I should write that down somewhere so I don't forget it.

In a previous life I employed discreet signage in my bookshop extolling the virtues of an under appreciated literary star, and even on this review, over-use of italics also notwithstanding, I am proud to pronounce that the world should read more Vonnegut, even if it's this one. Just go out and buy a copy of Mother Night after.

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