Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel

The b2 Review, which is part of boundary2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture’s online publication, is featuring my review of Robert T. Tally Jr.’s book Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011) as part of its “Literature & Politics” section. Henry Veggian, who edits that section of the website, solicited the review a long time ago, and he was remarkably patient with me as I settled into a new job abroad and repeatedly delayed my submission. I learned a lot about what makes a good editor from working with him.

I also learned a lot from studying Tally’s book. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is a good example of a scholarly work that manages to take on a major author’s complete oeuvre. Tally offers substantial commentary on all of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, all while remaining swift and brief and consistently engaging. I hope that he earns a wide readership and that his study helps encourage further interest in Vonnegut’s fiction, especially within the academy.

Below is an excerpt from my concluding remarks (read the full review here):

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it.’”

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins