Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sidney Offit and David Kipen on what makes Kurt Vonnegut’s style “unmistakably his alone”

Writers seem to delight in trying to identify the defining components of Kurt Vonnegut’s distinctive voice. His best friend Sidney Offit, in an interview last year with The Library of America, offered the following assessment:
There’s a quality to his style that is suggestive of quips, gag writing. He once said to me there was one thing he always tried to have in a book: there should be a smile on every page. . . . 
Hemingway had an innovative style—the way he used the conjunction ”and” brought grace to the story. But I never met anyone who talked or acted like his characters. The difference is that you could imitate Hemingway’s style and still create something original. You just understate. But you can’t imitate Vonnegut without it seeming derivative or a parody. The best definition of Kurt’s style was John Leonard’s tribute at Kurt’s eightieth birthday party: “Vonnegut, like Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain, is always being funny when he’s not being depressed. His is a weird jujitsu that throws us for a loop.”
In “Unhappy Camper,” an essay this month in Humanities, David Kipen reviews Kurt Vonnegut’s life and career and concludes with an entertaining run at deconstructing Vonnegut’s style:
Yet no one book defines a writer—especially a dyspeptic writer—as much as his style. Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night may surpass Vonnegut’s other books, as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn all but dwarfs the rest of Twain, but it’s the timbre of an author’s idling voice that we ultimately know him by. Bierce’s ferocious, hypodermic sting, Mencken’s fulminating mock-heroic bombast: These are their fingerprints. It may be worth a few late words here to try to tissue-type what makes a Vonnegut sentence or paragraph unmistakably his alone. 
For one thing, of course, a Vonnegut sentence sometimes is a Vonnegut paragraph. Vonnegut didn’t let his nights pasting up the Cornell Daily Sun torpedo a semi-promising academic career without first learning a thing or two about the benefits of shrewdly apportioned white space. His most frequent use of it, the four-word koan “And so it goes” warrants attention on a couple of fronts. Superficially, it’s an affront to every grammar rulebook that ever misinformed impressionable minds about how not to begin a sentence. Less conspicuously, though, it also scans as poetry—iambic dimeter, to be finicky about it, with an internal rhyme thrown in for lagniappe. 
Vonnegut’s poetic rhythms serve as a clue to another cornerstone of his style: It’s written for the ear, and meant to be heard. The very first sentence of the new collection [Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973], “Call me Jonah,” from Cat’s Cradle, is an imperative, as is the first paragraph of the second chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, which introduces the whole Billy Pilgrim thread of the story with the single word “Listen.” At least one chapter of Breakfast of Champions begins with the same word, and it recurs with incantatory frequency throughout the Vonnegut corpus. Like any command, it implies both the first and second person, the two most direct spoken voices possible. Vonnegut is talking straight to us, one thing that’s helped endear him to generations of young readers. He also confirms their earliest suspicions that they’re being regularly lied to. 
Indispensable to Vonnegut’s humane comedy is this informal sense of reader rapport. The first sentence of Slaughterhouse-Five uses the phrase “more or less,” the second, “pretty much.” Before the paragraph is out, we’ll see “And so on.” Precision matters less to Vonnegut than commiseration, the feeling that we’re all in this together and nobody finishes on top, and therefore that sweating every last adverb may not really be for him.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA volumes: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

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