Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Armageddon in Retrospect - Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

Before we proceed with our fifth Kurt Vonnegut review, allow me to make a confession: I am a twerp.  I am a twerp, and I am ashamed of myself.

"I consider anybody who borrows a book instead of buying it, or lends one, a twerp.  When I was a student at Shortridge High School a million years ago, a twerp was defined as a guy who put a set of false teeth up his rear end and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs.
But I hasten to say, should some impressionable younger person here tonight, at loose ends from a dysfunctional family, resolve to take a shot at being a real twerp tomorrow, that there are no longer buttons on the back seats of taxicabs.  Times change!" (30)

This is a somewhat poorly-written first sentence, a rarity for Vonnegut.  I do lend books, so maybe I am not a twerp.  My roommate lent me this book and I lent him Galapagos and reflected that I need to review all the books by KV that I read in the past and loved.

Armageddon in Retrospect is Vonnegut's final published work.  Actually, that's wrong!  It's his first posthumous work.  And there have been 11 or 12 more since then.

It's important because it's connected quite intimately with his death.  His son, Mark Vonnegut, offers an introduction that is about as finely written as anything by his father.  The introduction itself is a true highlight.

This book took me about a week to read, and I was quite casual about it.  It has that trademark Vonnegut appeal, but it's pretty weird.  First, it opens with a speech he gave to accept an award in Indianapolis, IN in 2007, shortly before he passed away (actually I think he passed before he was able to deliver it in person--Mark Vonnegut delivered it instead).  The excerpt near the top of this review is from that speech.

Then, there are a bunch of short stories about war.  Several of these are more tragicomic extrapolations of his experience as a POW in Dresden at the end of World War II, which was also an inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five (also near the top of my list to revisit).  Prior to the speech is a letter written from a young Vonnegut to his parents while he was a POW, and following the speech is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets."  There is a New York Times review which posits that these two pieces are the strongest in the collection, and I am inclined to agree.  The former is a surprisingly entertaining and mordant narrative of his experience being captured, and the latter is a deeper, more detailed reflection upon it.

"Great Day" follows and this is where Vonnegut shifts into fiction mode.  It's a mix of a war story and science fiction, and to me it was still kind of confusing what was going on in the beginning, and seems most notable for its ending, which seems inevitable.

"Guns Before Butter" is about a group of soldiers fantasizing about what they are going to eat once they return home and can get off of their soup and bread rations.  They trade recipes with one another, and the German soldier in charge of their supervision chides them for it, then later gets in trouble for something over them, and ends the story indulging their talk.  It's a pleasant and mildly heartwarming lark.

"Happy Birthday, 1951" is another vaguely confusing story that has a post-apocalyptic bent to it.  It is about an old man and a boy in his charge, in a threatening environment which might be depicted vaguely like The Road.  The old man takes the boy out of their hiding place and into the forest so that he can appreciate natural beauty, and away from the perpetual state of war they live under.

"Brighten Up" is another story about war.  By this point in the collection, the reader is thinking, okay, this is Vonnegut's The Things They Carried.  But the stories aren't connected or linked in a similar way, and they're not quite as intricately crafted or emotional.  "Brighten Up" features a soldier (Louis) that extorts valuables from other soldiers and receives preferred treatment from the Germans.  It reads more like a sketch of a real person Vonnegut knew there.

"The Unicorn Trap" is one of the weirdest stories in the collection, and not necessarily the best.  But I did think it was hilarious the way the characters talked, with it taking place in the year 1067.  That aspect reminded me of "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned."

I had almost forgotten that "Unknown Soldier" was in the book, but it's very short and is about the contest that a couple wins when they have the first baby born in the year 2000.

"Spoils" is also pretty short and is again about soldiers trying to take valuables from a pillaged village.

"Just You and Me, Sammy," features a character that seems like Louis from "Brighten Up," except made even meaner and more sinister.  It is probably the most infuriating thing in this collection.  The reader will want to kill George and will most likely the find the ending satisfying.  It's also very long.  After "Wailing Will Be in All Streets," it's the most affecting.

As is "The Commandant's Desk," which seems to take off on a tangent from "Spoils." It concerns an old man and his widowed daughter dealing with American soldiers that have taken over their town.  The ending is clever, and oddly reminds me of some of Nabokov's short stories.

It ends with the title story, "Armageddon in Retrospect," which has more potential than anything else and made me laugh more than anything else but seemed to kind of peter out.  It opens with a brilliant conceit:

"Chronologically, the list should probably begin with the late Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany, who spent, by and large fruitlessly, the last half of his life and inheritance in trying to get someone to pay attention to his theories on mental illness.  What Schildknecht said, in effect, was that the only unified theory of mental illness that seems to fit all the facts was the most ancient one, which had never been disproved.  He believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.
He said so in book after book, all printed at his own expense, since no publisher would touch them, and he urged that research be undertaken to find out as much as possible about the Devil, his forms, his habits, his strong points, his weaknesses." (210)

The story goes some pretty interesting places, but I got lost in the last few pages and didn't really understand how the "Armageddon"  took place.  Still it's the kind of big gesture story that caps off a collection like he did in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" in Welcome to the Monkey House.  Now, this book cannot compare to that one.  They are not in the same league.  But it's a pleasure for the Vonnegut maniac and casual readers alike.  I would advise one to start elsewhere if they had not read much of him, but this shows Vonnegut in his most pacifist element, speaking the most potent truth derived from his past experiences, regarding the senseless tragedy of war.

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