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of war and peace

New Vonnegut collection: Armageddon in Retrospect


Earlier this year, the first posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut's writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, hit the shelves with an assortment of 13 short stories and other musings on war and peace. Rifling through the papers of dead authors usually results in two things: It offers new insight for readers, or it capitalizes on unfinished work for publishers. Sometimes both occur, sometimes neither.

New insights into the mind of Vonnegut, as could be hoped for, aren't here. Perhaps the most elucidating is the introduction, written by his son, Mark. Mark's reflections characterize his father as a paradoxical thinker who wanted to be a famous pessimist, like Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain, but despite all the twisted things his father witnessed in his life, he never could quite abandon all hope for humanity. Vonnegut was an extrovert who wanted to be an introvert, a happy guy who wanted to be depressed—all part of the intrigue of the man that gives his writing the life it has. The fundamental theme is a sardonic acceptance of the futility and the fickleness of human nature, and in that acceptance comes insight and direction towards something better.

Vonnegut was a stellar wordsmith in many capacities, from writing plays to speaking publicly, but the pinnacle of his skill was in his ability as a novelist. These short stories are well organized, but a little disappointing compared to the intricate craftsmanship that charged Vonnegut's novels. Still, there is plenty about Armageddon in Retrospect to enjoy.

His cynical lambasting of humanity is as strong as ever, as well as the black humor that defines his style. Most of the stories are pseudo-biographical reflections of his experiences in Europe during World War II, with his familiar leanings toward science-fiction scattered throughout. Of particular note is a reproduction of a 1945 letter Vonnegut wrote to his family following his release as a German prisoner of war. Readers who know Vonnegut primarily from Slaughterhouse-5will recognize more musings on the Dresden firebombing in the collection. Readers who know Vonnegut as a broader thinker will be left wanting something more. I was hopeful that Vonnegut's alter ego, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, would make an appearance, but neither he nor any of the other recurring cast of misfits that spanned Vonnegut's novels show up.

Armageddon in Retrospect is not a hodgepodge of literary B-sides, but neither is it representational of Vonnegut's capabilities as a writer. What I suspect is that the war theme for this installment was chosen because war is timely (as always) and appeals to a broader audience than other subjects Vonnegut mused about: art appreciation, painting, survivors of humanity ironically stranded in the Galapagos Islands.

I look forward to a time when Penguin releases some of Vonnegut's more experimental unpublished work. As Mark writes, the genius of his father's work lays in how the world is a slightly different place for the reader after reading what Vonnegut has to say about it.