Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Man Without a Country | Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Let me preface this by saying that I have only read two works by Vonnegut, but both have put me in the classification as a fan. “Slaughterhouse Five”, on the bombing of Dresden, was a good book... but I can’t say that it has stuck with me very much over time. The opposite is true of one of his lesser known works entitled “The Galapagos”, which is a satire on human evolution. Vonnegut’s prognosis on the human race is that we’re failing due to one particular genetic defect: the fact that we have huge brains. His argument in the book is that, for humans to evolve as a species, we need to evolve to have smaller brains. I find this hilarious, truthful and fascinating all at the same time.

The other thing about Vonnegut that resonates with me, is that we ended up working for the same company [we’re both Scorpio’s as well] at one point in our respective careers. Vonnegut’s father grew up working in the arts and strongly advocated Kurt getting a degree that was a little more substantial. At one point he worked in public relations for one of the largest corporate conglomerates in the world... and I laugh at how horrible the fit probably was. I see that as a great work of satire in and of itself.

This brief interlude gives you an idea on where my headspace is coming from as I review this work, “A Man Without a Country”. The novel was published in 2005 when Vonnegut was 82 years old, and is a “collection of articles written over the last 5 years” since his previous published work, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” published in 1999. Less than two years after “A Man Without a Country” was published, Vonnegut (God Bless him – ‘a joke, since Vonnegut was deeply Unreligious) passed at the ripe age of 84. So it goes.

Now that we have all that background stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the book. “A Man Without a Country” is filled with a bunch of world musings by Vonnegut. Most are the standard “humans killing the planet,” “the United States is hated by all with good reason”, “Politicians are idiots and the system breeds them that way,” etc. All this stuff resonates, and Vonnegut provides us with some great humour... but it’s the same shtick we’ve heard from everyone that has any intelligence whatsoever. However, there are little gems in here that maybe aren’t as common... such as a nice little portrayal of why Vonnegut wouldn’t order envelopes sent to his house (for his manuscripts), but would rather walk to the store and interact with people and the world in general. It’s true that lots of us have lost this – we lose a lot of valuable life by absorbing ourselves in virtual worlds. And as Vonnegut said, we’re supposed to be dancing animals.

The one thing that stands out to me in the old age of Vonnegut, is that he’s given up. He declares that we’re already doomed and there is nothing we can do about it anymore. This may be true... but you don’t start revolutions by telling people they will fail. We probably will, but Gandhi didn’t tell Indians that they should just give up their salt and play by the rules. My intention is not to compare Gandhi to Vonnegut by any means, but I would think that someone on the edge of his life would be more concerned with making a difference than telling people things are hopeless.

That being said, I enjoyed the book for what it was – it had some good satirical points by commenting on what we’ve done to society and the world, but it didn’t suggest ways to improve things or introduce any new concepts. For Vonnegut, I found this book to be a bit “tired”, and that left some sort of negative undertone on the book for me as a whole. That being said, I’m glad I read it and there are things about it that I hope will stick with me as I go about my life until my own... “so it goes”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your reactions to this book were largely the same as mine. It did often feel like a rehash of other things he'd already written about (I guess that kind of goes with the territory once one has read the majority of an author's works, as I now have with Vonnegut).

You're right in pointing out he doesn't exactly propose any viable "solutions" to all the ills of society that he's lamenting, and I wonder if part of the tone can be ascribed to the "pessimism of old age", but he is often profoundly pessimistic in the works of his younger years too. One of his early works (his first novel, I believe) that I'd recommend is Player Piano. Some of his experiences while working at GE seep through to the pages of that work.

I prefer a more optimistic approach. Yes, indeed, humanity seems faced with truly daunting problems likely coming to a head in the not too distant future, but as Carl Sagan has said, humans are good at "figuring things out." Let's hope HE's right and not Vonnegut.