In the famous introduction to his one great novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut recounts how it became possible for him to write about the Dresden massacre during World War II, in which the British killed 135,000 Germans, most of them civilians, in one infernal night of firebombing. Vonnegut had been there at the time, a prisoner of war who'd survived in an underground bunker, and the next morning had been forced to dispose of some of the bodies in the carnage's aftermath. For the next 20 years Vonnegut tried to think through the trauma clearly enough to write about it. He couldn't get a handle on the subject until one night he was swapping war stories with an army buddy when the buddy's wife blew up at the both of them. “You were nothing but babies then,” she fumed. Which turned on some light bulb for Vonnegut, who began to see the massacre as simply a manifestation of human ignorance, or better, human innocence, the woeful result of human beings—Darwinian accidents waking to find big old guns in their hands—being in way over their heads, mere babies in an eons-long biohistorical process that would be a cosmic joke if it weren't so tragic. Dresden wasn't evil; it was dumb Homo sapiens children not knowing what they were up to.
As theodicies (or theories of evil) go, this is pretty slim stuff; it worked in Slaughterhouse-Five only through the buoyancy of the book's humor and imaginative daring. In any case, it's hard to imagine anyone holding on to such a view very long before drifting down into the worst swamps of cynicism. Which is more or less where Kurt Vonnegut has gone in the past couple of decades, and where he's set up camp in his latest book, A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays originally written for In These Times. Here's a sample: “What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet—the only one in the whole Milky Way—with a century of transportation whoopee. Our government is conducting a war against drugs, is it? Let them go after petroleum. Talk about a destructive high! You put some of this stuff in your car and you can go a hundred miles an hour, run over the neighbor's dog, and tear the atmosphere to smithereens. Hey, as long as we are stuck with being homo sapiens, why mess around? Let's wreck the whole joint. Anybody got an atomic bomb? Who doesn't have an atomic bomb nowadays?”
There are probably some smart-ass junior high kids who find this stuff funny, or penetrating, or something; for the rest of us, it's just embarrassing. The book is filled with lame fulminations like this: “Do you realize that all great literature—Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter . . . —are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)” Who the hell does Vonnegut think his audience is? (Why would we be relieved to learn that art's about life being a bummer? Why would we be relieved to think like idiots?) This book has the single lamest discussion of Hamlet I've ever read, and what he has to say about The Metamorphosis (“It's a pessimistic story”) is strictly for the smart-ass junior high kids. He dredges up ideas from past books—like the asterisk/asshole from Breakfast of Champions or the idea that everyone needs an extended family to counteract loneliness (from Slapstick)—and rolls them up with some extended rants about how environmental havoc means our imminent doom, and he does it all with a combination of pseudo-ingenuous whimsicality and throwaway disgust that spells in great big letters: I GOT NOTHING LEFT TO SAY.
Though he keeps invoking Mark Twain's ghost—the late Twain whose humanistic comedy turned misanthropic and nihilistic in The Mysterious Stranger—as a model for his own dyspepsia, Vonnegut's no Twain: he's more like some nattering grandpa ranting from the couch about those dummies on the TV. He can still get off a few good paragraphs here and there—it's nice to learn, for instance, that when Marx said “Religion is the opium of the people,” he actually wasn't criticizing: Marx had used opium as a painkiller, had been grateful, and “was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress.” But mainly A Man Without a Country is lightweight, gaseous stuff.
Vonnegut ends his last essay by quoting a friend about art: “What you respond to in any work of art is the artist's struggle against his or her limitations.” I'm totally with Vonnegut here. But there's nothing in this book that suggests that Vonnegut's struggling with anything—he's tired, he's pissed and his limitations as an artist are so glaring that he's given up.
A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY BY KURT VONNEGUT; SEVEN STORIES PRESS. HARDCOVER, 192 PAGES, $23.95.