He was our friend: Kurt Vonnegut's 'Armageddon in Retrospect'

John G. Nettles

Armageddon in Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
April 2008, 240 pages, $24.95

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was a friend of mine. Not that I ever met him, but he was a friend of mine all the same, because he did for me what friends do. He got me through rough patches of my life with his absurd humor and simple decency. When no one else's words seemed to offer me anything, his were always there. Reading Vonnegut, I could always hear a voice, feel a human presence beyond mere style, beyond glib wordplay. Kurt Vonnegut was my friend, and your friend too.

Armageddon in Retrospect (Penguin USA, 2008) is a new collection of previously unpublished works by Vonnegut on the one-year anniversary of his death, and while it's not exactly the treasure-trove his fans might have hoped for, this assortment of essays and short stories on the theme of war is still Vonnegut, and even the least of his works contain amazing stuff.

War was always a preoccupation for Vonnegut, its horrors and pointlessness and capacity to make otherwise rational people behave in nonsensical ways, and these elements are doled out in full and equal measure in this collection. Of particular interest to Vonnegut, and a running theme throughout most of his work, is the issue of capitulation -- to what degree do we allow ourselves to be parties to war by doing nothing? In one story Vonnegut envisions a future without conflict, a condition so anathemic to the human condition that time-travel technology is used in order to seek it out. In another, an old couple in a Czechoslovakia freed from Communist rule finds themselves equally persecuted by an American occupying force for not having risen up against the last regime. A family man in Norman England has to choose between a cushy berth as his feudal lord’s tax collector and the example he must set for his son, despite his nattering wife’s excitement over better living through the scraps from the Normans’ table.

The defining moment in Vonnegut's life was witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a POW, an experience he attempted to write out through his seminal novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1965), but which provides fodder for several of the stories here. Unlike many posthumous collections, this one doesn’t quite have the feel of the author’s heirs plundering the bottom of a discard trunk, though the absence of any dates assigned to these stories does make one wonder just how long Vonnegut, a shameless anthologizer of his own work, allowed these to gather dust and why. Still, the collection is worth reading for the stories, the inclusion of Vonnegut's final piece of writing, an address he was about to give at Indiana University when he had the accident that took his life, and son Mark Vonnegut’s eloquent and apt tribute to his father's life and work. Vonnegut's best? No. But in a world made the worse for losing Kurt Vonnegut's voice and spirit, we'll take what we can get. After all, he was our friend.

Originally published 14 May 2008 at Flagpole.

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