Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

2012 has been my year for Vonnegut. I've re-read 2 of his books (Breakfast of Champions, which was my introduction to Vonnegut years ago, and Man Without A Country), and I read a fun little book of Vonnegut criticism.

So on a recent roadtrip, I was excited to bring along the audiobook of While Mortals Sleep, the recently released, previously unpublished Vonnegut short story collection.

(A note:
These are stories that were never published while Vonnegut was alive, though many of them were submitted for publication. As with the works of JRR Tolkien that never saw the light of day, I think we have to approach them fully conscious that the author may not have been done with them, that the author may have even preferred [since there was ample opportunity to repurpose them into a collection]  that they never be published. That said, as with Kafka, while we recognize that the works are not as the author may have intended, they exist as the author created them.

So I can't read a posthumous collection and level against it the same criticism I would against one of the collections Vonnegut published in his lifetime. If there are flaws, at least some of the fault lies with the publisher and with the author's estate).

The collection was uneven, and very different from the Vonnegut I love- the Vonnegut who wrote Slaughterhouse Five and Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions wrote science fiction that bordered on magical realism infused with a deep metatextualness. Those were stories about story telling, about the delusions of culture and the value of culture and family that can be obscured if we don't take proper care of each other, about how the world grinds away our effort to be rational but how to love being alive anyways.

There were glimpses of that Vonnegut here- in one fable, two painters duel. One, an abstract expressionist is commercially unsuccessful but critically lauded, while the other, a photographic realist, is the reverse. Goaded to duel by their loving but petty wives, each artist has one night to adopt the other's style.

Like characters in an O'Henry story, the artists are of course unable to stop their preferred mode from seeping through. In despair, they trade works, an act of willing plagiarism and self-denial. And of course, the world heaps the missing element onto each painters work in the form of either praise or purchase.

The themes are distinctly Vonnegut's, but his style is still taking shape. His characters are more rounded, more human than the ones I love from his novels. In that, I can't help finding them to be less than I would wish for. But, that may be because I would wish for a new novel, knowing that there will never be another.

Book 43 of my book-a-week challenge.

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