Kurt Vonnegut: A Man Without A Country
It’s a mistake to subtitle Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country (2005) with “a memoir of life in George W. Bush’s America” since a) it’s not much of a memoir; and b) its range is wider. What it is, then, is a collection of essays covering a range of topics, most of which initially appeared in the In These Times magazine. I did have reservations in reading this since I’d read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and didn’t enjoy his style at all. But with non-fiction I was willing to take another chance.
A Man Without A Country is a book that deals tangentially with aspects of Vonnegut’s life – his humour, his creativity, and his humanism – but the larger canvas centres on the issues of the day, namely the environment, politics, and war. As a swansong it’s perhaps not the greatest contribution to American letters, being a cobbled together collection of essays that seemingly Vonnegut wasn’t up to the task of editing, but it has its moments.
The first couple of pieces focus solely on the man, about how being the youngest in the family makes humour the way to be appreciated. Then Vonnegut moves on to the arts, discussing how he want to be a writer, noting, with his trademark humour:
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.
Beyond the personal, Vonnegut moves on to a thin creative writing lesson accompanied by some amusing graphs showing events in the works of Shakespeare and Kafka, amongst others. But where the book is most enjoyable is when discussing issues that matter to others. On the subject of cigarettes, for example, he jokes about suing the American tobacco companies for not giving him cancer and, at the time of writing, he was eighty-two, saying:
The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
Vonnegut’s disdain for the Bush administration is clear but A Man Without A Country doesn’t really hit new ground, being much in line with public sentiment. Nor does it offer any persuasive reasons for others to change their ways in the wider world, as regards the planet’s state. His pot shots here and there are effective but his kindly tone soon soothes their blow and undermines there seriousness.
In one chapter Vonnegut tells of letters receieved and his replies to the questions therein, one of which sums up his attitude to life, on the being asked for reassurance that everything will be okay:
“Welcome to Earth, young man,” I said. “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: Goddamn it, Joe, you’ve got to be kind!”
It’s the balance of optimism and pessimism that make Vonnegut’s writings here enjoyable and while he jokes for the most part, he makes it clear that he has lost faith in humanity (“I think the planet should get rid of us. We’re really awful animals.”) and the future looks bleak thanks to the mass indifference shown, pushing it to the point that we are not so much facing a man without a country as a planet without man. And I think Kurt, who’s up in Heaven now, would quite like that.
February 28, 2008