Thursday, July 5, 2012

NEW Kurt Vonnegut, "We Are What We Pretend to Be"

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE: The first and Last Works w/special commentary from Nanette Vonnegut has never before been in print. Vanguard, a member of the Perseus Book Group, will be publishing it this Fall. The book is a treat for any Vonnegut fan and useful for aspiring writers.

I love Kurt Vonnegut for his strong heart, whether breaking with irony or crackling with humor. His wit was beyond rapier, even off-center going after unexpected targets and he improvised like a clairvoyant. He's full of spontaneous feeling and more accurate than not. I was once waiting for a plane in the Iowa City airport, as he was getting off one. He caught my eye and pointed to the book I was reading, Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up.” He made a “thumbs up” gesture and touched his heart. He mimed a finger across his neck about it being suicidal. Vonnegut loved the book, Fitzgerald, and, though I was across the room, correctly perceived me as a fellow traveller.

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE tells a lot about Kurt Vonnegut. Written 50 years apart, and autobiographical, the two stories show where he started and where he wound up-- the journey from youth to maturity of this singular man.  Basic Training was written two years before his breakthrough novel, Player Piano. His daughter, Nanette, says in her unsentimental introduction, it was never accepted for publication. Around the Vonnegut house were  years of rejection slips, enough to cover the trash cans.

If God Were Alive Today is the beginning of a novel that was never finished.  Nannette's introduction ends with the tribute “ Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.” She also acknowledges (If God) was the work of his "slightly charred 78 year old brain."

His improvisational wit is all over the place. The chaos of his protagonist, may reflect Vonnegut's dissolving marriage and the state of his health, but it's full of madcap vaudeville; farts, a hermaphrodite savior, drugs and sexy psychiatrists. Unfinished at his death, we don't know how it would have ended but it's some crazy process.  

In Basic Training, there's a boy of sixteen, an aspiring pianist, who's forced to become a menial worker on the General's, his uncle's farm. The loss of his previous "soft life” and the harsh discipline of his uncle’s uncompromising military ethos conspire to make him quite unhappy, a fact a little eased by the General's lovely daughter. Here you see Vonnegut themes of an innocent unjustly blamed and trapped in an authoritarian situation. And he must escape!

After lots of comic scrapes, the hero runs off with the homicidally insane hired hand, and ends up on Chicago’s skid row. But like Bringing up Baby, at the end everyone's misconceptions are revealed to be mistaken and the situation is happily resolved. It’s a romantic comedy but you also see the embryonic stage of Vonnegut’s satire on pompous militarists and the plight of hapless rebels. It's light fun, but I can also see how Vonnegut's pursuit of his talent, would lead to his breakthrough book a couple years later.

What's might be of interest for writers is that Basic Training shows Vonnegut actually writing what he did know. According to his daughter, in later years he yearned for this farm life in the Midwest. But that hoary cliche that aspiring writers should write what they know only makes sense if you transform it into something else. Otherwise, get it out of your system so you can write your own breakthrough novel.


We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works