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Saturday, June 16, 2012

William Deresiewicz on The Sirens of Titan, when “Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut”

William Deresiewicz begins his review in The Nation of the LOA’s first two Kurt Vonnegut volumes with some apprehension:
Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? They were part of the mystique. Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance? There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted. . . . But never mind; the words cast their spell [and] the layout is forgotten. . . . Some of them are worse than I remembered, but some of them are even better.
“With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity,” Player Piano’s “prescience is chilling,” according to Deresiewicz, yet he finds Vonnegut’s first novel “apprentice work—clunky, clumsy, overstuffed.” His reaction to the second novel is decidedly different:
Turn the page to The Sirens of Titan (1959), however, and it’s all there, all at once. Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut. The spareness hits you first. The first page contains fourteen paragraphs, none of them longer than two sentences, some of them as short as five words. It’s like he’s placing pieces on a game board—so, and so, and so. The story moves from one intensely spotlit moment to the next, one idea to the next, without delay or filler. The prose is equally efficient, with a scalding syncopated wit: “‘I told her that you and she were to be married on Mars.’ He shrugged. ‘Not married exactly—’ he said, ‘but bred by the Martians—like farm animals.’”

. . . With a decade writing stories for the slicks under his belt (Colliers, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post), Vonnegut knew about pushing an audience’s buttons. Later, when he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he won his students’ reluctant allegiance by eschewing aesthetic pieties and teaching them how to grab a reader’s attention. People want illusions, The Sirens of Titan insists, and they are abjectly grateful to anyone who can offer them. [The protagonist Malachi] Constant is trapped on Mercury with another man, Boaz. Each knows something about the other that the other doesn’t know about himself. “Don’t truth me,” Boaz pleads with him, “and I won’t truth you.”

Fortune makes for satire, the vanity of human wishes. What elevates the novel to tragedy is the fact that Constant isn’t guiltless. The truth Boaz withholds is something dreadful that the other man has done: unwillingly, unwittingly, but done nonetheless. This is high Greek stuff. Our moral beings are not ours to rule, yet we are accountable for them all the same. Tragedy means that, in the end, you do not question what’s become of you, because you know that you deserve it. . . . The novel is punctuated by moments of piercing loss. At the last, like all true tragedy, it leaves us drained and humbled. . . . Later, Vonnegut would justly be accused of sentimentality. Here the emotion is earned. In this, his second novel and his second-greatest, he achieves a sublimity he would never attempt again.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950–1962 (includes The Sirens of Titan); Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

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