We Are What We Pretend to Be: The First and Last Works
“We Are What We Pretend to Be is a worthy addition [to Vonnegut’s oeuvre].”
The question is whether it is possible to overstate the impact that the novels of Kurt Vonnegut had on the now-aging Baby Boomer generation?
The answer is: likely not.
After all, while Erich Segal became both famous and ridiculous for Love Story, and Updike was all rabbitty, and Joyce Carole Oates was, as always, just churning, churning, churning away at books no one seemed to be reading while we all pretended to read Gravity’s Rainbow, which we never quite finished, it was Kurt Vonnegut who seemed to best seemed hit home with us. Who helped define us.
Mr. Vonnegut’s books resonated as we wrestled with the Vietnam War, Watergate, Nixon, the draft lottery, gas lines, disco, and the bicentennial. His books that were all at once bitingly funny, sarcastic, subversive, challenging, angry, brutal, and addictive.
He made us laugh. He made us snicker.
Before him, we never knew that there were adults who thought as he did. Or who had such sad, puffy eyes.
It was author Vonnegut who understood how we all felt: that we were unstuck in time. It was author Vonnegut who did Robert Frost one better in making damn sure that the world came to a cold end with his invention of “ice nine.” Who made the world safe for the ugly, the stupid, and the talentless through the efforts of our nation’s first “Handicapper General” who saw to it that we all were literally made equal. Who taught us to say, “Hi ho.”
It was author Vonnegut who gave us Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions, and Mother Night. Who created the befuddled Eliot Rosewater and the exhausting Diana Moon Glampers, unstuck Billy Pilgrim and the author’s doppelganger, Kilgore Trout. And it was he who understood what was the best, worst, and most interesting about our generation: that we were an accident waiting to happen.
Kurt Vonnegut was like our favorite professor. The one in whose class we sat back in our chairs, relaxed, and laughed but raised our hands, or better, caught up in the moment, just shouted out our comments. He was the guy who seemed to be making it up as he was going along, but who, somehow, always seemed to end up making a point.
In his heyday, Kurt Vonnegut made the world a little safer for readers and writers, for liberals and progressives (in his way of thinking, art and politics seem to be all balled up together), for young people and old people and lovely people and ugly people (one woman in the new work is referred to as being “a mountain of apple pan dowdy” in that oddly loving Vonnegutty way of his), for smart people and stupid people. He made science fiction fans of us all.
No other author of his generation shaped so many minds, and so impacted the culture as Kurt Vonnegut did. No other author of this era is as fondly remembered.
It seems that his daughter, Nanette Vonnegut, is aware of this. Note, in her foreword to a new publication of her father’s work, We Are What We Pretend to Be, to whom she chooses to compare him:
“My father did with words what Fred Astaire did with his body; something out of this world that no one else could possibly pull off. Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s new book is something of an alpha/omega event. Published five years after his death, We Are What We Pretend to Be, as the author’s daughter comments, presents two stories:
“‘Basic Training’ is a story that was never accepted for publication. ‘If God Were Alive Today’ is the beginning of a novel that was never finished. They were written at the beginning and end, respectively, of my father’s writing career, fifty years apart.”
Granted, the manuscripts located at the bottom of the desk drawer or in a box in the attic most often are the literary equivalent of drier lint, and the first story, “Basic Training,” will never stir up more than a vague sense of curiosity on the part of a reader, as it is sweet, sappy and in a way reminiscent of Woody Allen in Annie Hall turning to the camera and saying, “What do you want? It was my first play,” when he chose to give his fictive retelling of life with Annie a happy ending.
Thus, “Basic Training” is a coming of age tale, a riff on the story of the farmer’s daughter, and a fictional rewrite of how Kurt Vonnegut met his first wife. But not much more.
What do you want? It was his first story.
And a bit of juvenilia to remember Mr. Vonnegut by. But not much more.
Far better is “If God Were Alive Today.” It’s title is the set up for a joke (if He were alive today, He would, it seems, be an atheist); it’s hero a millionaire stand-up comic named Gil Berman, son of a father who killed himself at the young age of 42 himself a suicide:
“Cause of death? Morphine overdose, self-administered for permanent relief from the pain of the same cancer that killed his mother. His age? Exactly forty-five to the day. Berman died in his business suit and basketball shoes, with a note pinned to his regimental-stripe tie. His regiment? The Coldstream Guards. His note? It was an epitaph he recommended for himself: ‘He lasted three years longer in that fucking Chinese fire drill than his dad did.’”
The sorrow here is that the thing was left unfinished. That means that the reader who does not notice the pages quickly flying by will, sadly and abruptly, turn a page to find, instead of the next chapter, a brief recounting of the life of Kurt Vonnegut.
Is it fitting somehow to think of this man, whose head was crammed with concepts big and small that got all wound up in his words, would cease writing seemingly mid-sentence?
Yet it does not make it any easier to know that, when it comes to Mr. Vonnegut, what we have left now are the works already on the table, already stacked up on the bookshelves.
Given the fragment we have, it seems likely that, had he lived to finish it, “If God Were Alive Today” would fit well and worthily into his cannon of work. Certainly its language is a nimble and Kurt-Vonnegut-twisted as anything that came before.
As here, when Berman, for the first time, is entering rehab in order to avoid serious criminal charges. Asked by a reporter his state of mind, he responds:
“Tabula rasa, friend. I feel like shit, but my slate is clean.”
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, when it comes to the death of a beloved author: a loss is a loss is a loss. The celebration remains, I guess, in the pile of books left behind, to be revisited again and again. We Are What We Pretend to Be is a worthy addition to that pile.
It stands as proof that Nanette Vonnegut is quite correct. Even in his last days, the guy was still defying gravity.