November 21, 2011
I’ve been asked to comment on the two books that are coming out about my friend Kurt Vonnegut. Well, this is not a simple request to honor because, first, I edited one and am publishing it. Greg Sumner’s Unstuck in Time is a long overdue account of the creation of Kurt’s extraordinary body of work, 14 novels and many other books, the last three of which I edited and published here at Seven Stories (A Man without a Country, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and, with Lee Stinger, Like Shaking Hands with God). I think Unstuck in Time helps moves us towards a deeper understanding of one of the very few grandmasters of American literature in the 20th century. Charles Shields in his book, And So It Goes, doesn’t have a lot to say about what Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but he does attempt to take on the enigma of the man. There are things that need to be said, and I may as well be the one to say them since I have read both books from cover to cover and had a chance to think about them and weigh them against my own sense of the man they claim to portray. I will try to choose my words carefully. Greg Sumner is a fan, an admirer. I believe that he has worked hard to transcend that role and has done so very successfully. Mr. Shields’s self-chosen role is more opaque to me. He has a career as a biographer and wants to make sure he keeps it up. I could accept it if Mr. Shields had done everything he could and then come to his own conclusions. Unfortunately, he came to his own conclusions first, and then did just enough work to justify them: he never attempted to interview many of Kurt’s closest friends and colleagues, particularly those that would have given him a more positive spin on the man, who would have spoken of the friend they could always count on and the writer who was kind to fellow writers less fortunate than he was. It is hard to build a career by saying or writing nice things about people. And yet, not only was Kurt beloved, he can be credited for freeing American literature from some of the stiffness and formality that had always marked it previously. He made the province of American literature much less provincial. Perhaps there are other writers who did as much, but no other writer did more for us, the country of his readers. Charles Shields makes no attempt to fathom or present to his readers that story. He leaves us altogether in the dark as to what made Kurt so interesting to so many of us. I hope people will go out and find and read both these new books that appeared in print on November 11th. Go read Unstuck in Time and And So It Goes. Make up your own mind about them, and then go read a Kurt Vonnegut novel, whichever one you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading before.
– Dan Simon