I just finished reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, and have mixed feelings and unchecked nostalgia.
The mixed feelings part: the book was somewhat lopsided, but I liked it more than most of the reviewers. Like someone reviewed it “and so it goes – into the trash”, and I didn’t have that bad of a reaction to it. I do think Vonnegut probably deserves a more scholarly approach, something that carefully studies all of his books, analyzes their meanings and connections, and focuses less on his life. That was the main criticism from many reviewers, that Shields didn’t “get” Vonnegut’s work, and dwelled on stuff like his assholishness and extramarital affairs. I don’t know if he “got” it or not, but he didn’t spend the amount of time on it I would have liked.
That’s not to say Vonnegut wasn’t an asshole. There’s plenty of examples covered in the book, from the extended divorce-or-not-divorce antics with both of his wives to the various affairs and infidelities. There’s also all of this business about Knox Burger. Burger was one of Vonnegut’s early champions, someone who, as the editor at Collier’s, got his short stories published; later, when at Dell, he got his books put out there. When Burger was thinking about quitting Dell and taking the great leap into being an agent, Vonnegut whole-heartedly encouraged him to do it, and said he’d totally jump ship from his representation and come over to him. So Burger quit, and Vonnegut told him he couldn’t do it. There are several other examples of this kind of indecisiveness, and maybe Shields just cherry-picked some of the worst incidents and framed them to draw a morbid picture, but it’s all the kind of stuff I didn’t think about when reading Vonnegut’s fiction the first time.
I think that’s what bugged me about Vonnegut’s post-Timequake career, and this book. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as a college freshman, sitting in the IMU building on the Bloomington campus (which, coincidentally, Vonnegut’s dad helped design) and that metafictional construct of mixing himself and fiction into the same story line made me think that in some weird way, I knew him. I didn’t know anything about him outside of his books; there was no wikipedia back then, and maybe he was in the New York gossip papers, but he wasn’t in the news out in Indiana. I didn’t hear about the divorce news or the struggle he went through to write Timequake, and being oblivious to that stuff left the persona of Vonnegut much more impressive to me.
When I first started writing in 1993, Vonnegut was one of the writers I took a serious deep dive on. I bought every Laurel paperback edition I could get my hands on and plowed through them all quickly. My favorite was Breakfast of Champions, and I probably read it once every year or so, especially when I’m sick of everything else and just need something quick and decent to straighten my head again. That said, Vonnegut was one of those lithosphere layers of literature for me, something I could easily consume and that would leave an impact on me, but all of the books blended together and didn’t have the forever scarring effect that a more difficult read might. Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut, which meant his stuff was unique, but it also meant I couldn’t descend further into his madness. I read the core canon of his stuff, then moved onto other things, occasionally dipping back in to reread a book out of nostalgia.
But at some point, Vonnegut started to lose his charm to me. I think part of it was the balance between his fiction and his hashing out his personal life in the form of metafiction, until it got to the point (maybe around Palm Sunday) where there was no story and he was just throwing out straight memoir. By then, he moved, in my eyes, from metafictional genius to cranky old man. Timequake tried to turn this on end, with this strange twist of exploring determinism with the gimmick of time being stuck in a mobius loop, but he ultimately got dragged into this sea of autobiographical misery. Everything he did after that was either re-releases of stories that were originally published before he his his stride, or old man rants on the state of politics in the Bush era.
So to read a whole book that contains only these personal life details was somewhat depressing. The part of the book up to the publishing of Slaughterhouse, the bits about his struggle to find an audience, were compelling. But after that, it feels like the back half of the book was nothing but Vonnegut waiting to die, which was incredibly depressing. It’s not that Shields did a smear job on him; the content made it unavoidable.
Oh well. Maybe I need to re-read some of his old books to get this out of my head.