The view from Tralfamadore
Fates Worse Than Death — An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s
By Kurt Vonnegut
Vintage, 1992. 240 pp. $12.95
Reviewed by Dave Riley
Once upon a time artists were people; that is, they were for the people, by the people and of the people.
But all that changed. They began to fall back on themselves in search of a private vision, which in their lonely quest for profound expression made them incomprehensible to the rest of us. They tried very hard to tell us of our plight, but they had read so many books and thought so many thoughts that they forgot our language.
Then came Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote weird stories. People seemed to like him. His popular acceptance as a paperback writer rested on his literary prominence in the 1960s. He was a hero of youthful radicals, and his books sold in their millions.
Now 70 years of age, Kurt Vonnegut is still pumping it out.
Fates Worse Than Death is a freewheeling memoir of the '80s done as only he can. Recollections and anecdotes range through time, written with the wry wit and the sardonic good humour of an affable tolerance.
Vonnegut's idiosyncratic views are so profoundly human that he has not recovered from the fire-bombing of Dresden — which he witnessed as a POW in World War II — nor has he forgiven the United States government for the Vietnam War.
But he is not bitter enough to be satirical. "Listless playthings of enormous forces", is how he once described his fictional characters. In this most recent book, that listlessness seems to include himself. His attempted suicide and his mental breakdown are all part of the universal narrative. As many a Vonnegut devotee will tell you: so it goes.
Vonnegut really doesn't live in anyone's street directory. Formally a resident of the United States he seems to have his abode elsewhere, perhaps on his beloved planet of Tralfamadore.
Written from that perch his books have a quirky long view about them, where earthly time and place have little significance. In Galapagos — which he wrote in the mid-'80s — the human species is wiped out and replaced by a gene pool generated at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
In the books of Kurt Vonnegut the future comes uncomfortably close. The fates that are worse than death are really with us now, if only we could recognise them. Fortunately, surveying from a distance, Kurt Vonnegut is there to chart them for us.