I bought the collection of posthumously published Kurt Vonnegut stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, with low expectations. Unpublished stories are often unpublished for a reason – their creator didn't feel them worthy of seeing the light of day. No editor would ever turn down anything from Kurt Vonnegut – the New Yorker would happily print his grocery list, had he asked -- so I must assume it was Vonnegut himself who put these stories in the bottom drawer and forgot about them.
As I mentioned a couple days ago, the secret to pleasant surprises is setting the bar low. As his son Mark says in the introduction, the stories hold up well by themselves, with no more need of commentary. I enjoyed Mark's introduction – he clearly studied his father's style carefully, and attempted with sincere admiration to emulate both his caustic humor and his tender compassion for human suffering.
He said a few things that caught my attention:
Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in.
"If you cant' write clearly, you probably don't think nearly as well as you think you do," he told me.
The most radical, audacious thing to think is that there might be some point to working hard and thinking hard and reading hard and writing hard and trying to be of service.
The book opens with a photographed copy of a typewritten letter Vonnegut sent his family from Europe, telling them of his ordeals as POW in Germany. It's as beautiful and shocking and real as anything else he's ever written, and all the more telling because it's his life.
Most people will buy it for his last public address, the very last thing he ever wrote, which was actually delivered by his son Mark in his stead. It's . . . ok. I share Mark's estimation of it – sometimes you're asking, "How does he get away with this crap?" But it's very Vonnegut, and any of his fans will feel fondness for his ability to say plain truths simply with just enough twist to make them profound.
All of the stories have war as their theme. Nearly all are about hapless soldiers or other wise and miserable bystanders of destruction. One character, a Saxon peasant oppressed by Norman conquerors, sums up all their themes: "The wreckers against the builders! There's the whole story of life!" I thought that was a pretty workable, functional definition of Good versus Evil. I also was somewhat struck that almost exactly the same formulation comes from Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, who is about as different from Vonnegut in style and attitude as you could possibly imagine. Both loved the builders, and had absolute, utter contempt for the wreckers. Hmmmm.