Friday, January 27, 2012

If you want your child to be a writer, go bankrupt

This interesting article about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was posted at Humanities. They begin the piece with a rundown of great authors who fathers went bust or put their kids, for whatever reason, through serious challenges. It seems sons are so deeply affected by fathers that they can self-destruct (what I see with some clients) and aspire to greatness - perhaps all in different ways an attempt to get the love and validation they always sought but never received.
If you want your child to be a writer, go bankrupt.

The evidence confirms it. Failing that, at least suffer a severe financial reversal, obliging your son or daughter to endure the social opprobrium of changed schools and dropped friendships. Let him know the shame of fallen status, that he might grow ever more attuned to the minutest of slights, real or imagined. Careful scrutiny of his fellows will likely become a habit, a good sense of humor his first line of defense. Imagination will be his refuge. If you want your child to be a writer, do all this, and you may yet join an impecunious fraternity of writers’ parents that includes John Shakespeare, John Joyce, John Clemens, John Dickens, John Ernst Steinbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. (Apparently, you might also want to consider changing your name to John.) Not convinced? Throw in Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, Edward Fitzgerald, and Richard Thomas Hammett, too.

Charles J. Shields interviewed Vonnegut a couple of times for his biography, And So It Goes, and found the author still obsessed with ill feelings toward his parents and still angry about his lack of acceptance as a literary figure (from a review of the book):
Shields makes noise early about his subject’s sense of being overlooked, a feeling that went back to his relationship with his parents and his older brother Bernard, a noted physicist who died in 1997. During their final meeting, Vonnegut asked Shields to look up his name in Webster’s Dictionary; when Shields couldn’t find it, he directed him to look up Jack Kerouac. The implication is that Kerouac (or Norman Mailer or Nelson Algren or Truman Capote, all of whom make cameos in these pages) was taken more seriously than Vonnegut, whose early work was ghettoized as science fiction.  
In his interview with NPR, Shields offer this perspective:
Shields persuaded Vonnegut to let him write the book, and he spent hours talking to the Slaughterhouse-Five author during the last year of his life. He says he was surprised during their very first conversation when Vonnegut began by complaining about his parents.

"For all the world, I thought I was talking to a much younger person who still had a real beef with the way he had been raised," Shields says. But that oddly youthful outlook was what endeared Vonnegut to generations of disaffected kids.
With that background, here is a taste of the Humanities article, Unhappy Camper.
The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., whose most productive decade has just entered the Library of America pantheon with the publication of Novels & Stories 1963–1973, is no less classic a case than the rest.

Born into a prosperous German-American family in 1922 Indianapolis, the son and grandson of architects, his mother a privileged beer heiress soon unstrung by the Depression, Vonnegut was rudely yanked out of private school as the thirties began. “A wise use of resources,” he once ruefully called this step down in the world, still smarting in an interview quoted in Charles J. Shields’s fine, undeluded new Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes.

The hijacking of Vonnegut’s early education embarrassed him not just at the time but down the road, when his career would bring him into contact with writers more well-read than he was. “Who’s Keats?,” he once innocently asked of his writing students at the University of Iowa, and then, mortified at their laughter, fled the room. Two years later, a “Who’s Keats?” banner hung above his thronged, adoring going-away party.

Vonnegut may not have read his Keats, but he found his way early to the models he’d need most: the black humorists Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H. L. Mencken. Together they form a too often unacknowledged tradition in our letters, that of the Great American Dyspeptic. (Later, Hunter S. Thompson would join their raffish parade.) If he’s lucky, a reader finds them in adolescence, perhaps first as a suspiciously recurrent presence in Bartlett’s Quotations or other bathroom books. Of them, only Twain was a novelist, and therefore the only one likely to stray onto a school syllabus. Twain has also become the one most strongly identified over the years with Vonnegut, and the one likeliest to wind up alongside him on the business end of some bluestocking’s library or curriculum challenges.

All that dubious glory lay far in the future when Vonnegut first embarked on the genre fiction career that ultimately led to Library of America’s first volume of his writing. That nonprofit publisher has collected four consecutive midcareer Vonnegut novels and a miscellany of incidental writing into its customary handsome volume. Hemmed into its 1963–73 rubric, the book includes only a couple of his short stories, preferring to take Vonnegut from 1963’s Cat’s Cradle, perhaps the purest distillation of his novel-length genre work; through the pointed social satire of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; past his breakthrough, Slaughterhouse-Five; to 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, which Vonnegut described as his “fiftieth-birthday present to myself . . . as though I am crossing the spine of a roof—having ascended one slope.”

The downhill slope was gentler, but no breeze. The collection forms a fitting tribute to a beloved novelist who peaked late but fast. One year Vonnegut was still writing paperback originals for not much money. The next he was opining darkly on television about the moon landing with Walter Cronkite and Gloria Steinem. The difference was Slaughterhouse-Five, a book with, depending how you count them, at least two titles and two plots, and without which his other novels might, incredibly, not be in print from anyone, let alone the Library of America.

Vonnegut had been trying to shape the material that became Slaughterhouse-Five for twenty years. Rare for writers—rare for anybody—this most formative experience may have befallen him not as a child, but in young manhood. As a World War II POW, he had narrowly escaped the Allied firebombing of Dresden in an underground slaughterhouse. He emerged the next morning to find the whole city transformed into an abattoir, as if his hole had somehow expanded overnight to swallow what was left of the world. The experience, naturally, haunted him, not least because he must have suspected he had found, early on, by far his most important material.

After mustering out of the army, Vonnegut knocked around a bit, newspapering in Chicago and then flacking for General Electric. Always, he was writing. The arc of Vonnegut’s eventual career proceeds steadily from escapist yet thoughtful science fiction to fragmentary personal history. It’s only at the midpoint, Slaughterhouse-Five, that these two axes, the outlandish and the autobiographical, almost perfectly cross. The novel combines stroboscopic flashbacks to Vonnegut’s war experiences with the science-fiction overlay of a character called Billy Pilgrim who has become, in this seemingly plainspoken writer’s lovely formulation, “unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five became a counterculture sensation, joining Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and anticipating his fellow Cornellian Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in their time-scrambled use of the same “good war” to indict the absurdity of any war at all. Lost amid the eminently deserved praise heaped over the years on Slaughterhouse-Five has been Vonnegut’s only other novel-length treatment of the war, the vastly underrated Mother Night. Preceding Slaughterhouse-Five by seven years, Mother Night takes the form of a condemned man’s suicide note, the long jailhouse affidavit of an American spy who rose through the ranks of the Third Reich to become Nazi Germany’s star radio apologist.

This tightly plotted and structured book lacks most of its successor’s capering narrative pyrotechnics, concentrating instead on the story of a pathologically rationalizing man’s divestment, one by one, of all his cherished alibis. At the end, bereft of his sweetly loving marriage, his sense of mission as the deepest of deep-cover moles, he stands exposed as the quintessential hypocrite, the Gorgon who can no longer hide from his own reflection. It’s a mordantly thrilling novel, one whose potential eclipse behind the four newly enshrined by Library of America would be an outright shame.
Read the whole article.

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