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The latest in Vonnegut studies



It is springtime in Indianapolis, just slightly more than seven years since the passing of one of this city's favorite sons, Kurt Vonnegut. 2007 was declared the year of Vonnegut in Indianapolis. This, of course, was before the man himself tripped and fell down the front steps outside his Manhattan brownstone, hitting his head and never regaining consciousness.

At the time, Vonnegut was just weeks away from coming back to his hometown and delivering what he said would be his last public speech. He'd been working on it for months, refining punchlines, making sure local references were up to date.

It was a great speech. Brought the house down at a packed Clowes Hall. As it happened, Vonnegut's son Mark presented it in his dad's absence. It turned out to be this city's version of Kurt's memorial service (the speech has been published in the posthumous collection Armageddon in Retrospect).

But readers aren't yet ready to bid farewell to Kurt Vonnegut. The years since his death have seen a spate of new Vonnegut books, including collections of previously unpublished stories, critical appraisals, a biography and, most notably, a volume of letters edited by Vonnegut colleague and fellow Indianapolis native Dan Wakefield.

Now, in rapid succession, there are three more: a new edition of the short story collection Welcome To the Monkey House, including an essay by scholar Gregory D. Sumner that takes readers through successive drafts of the title story by way of excavating Vonnegut's writing process; If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, a collection of Vonnegut's college graduation (and a few other) speeches, selected and introduced by Wakefield; and, perhaps most unexpectedly, an art book featuring an extensive selection of Vonnegut's drawings.

Welcome To the Monkey House: The Special Edition - Featuring "Building the Monkey House" by Gregory D. Sumner - Dial Press, $18
  • Welcome To the Monkey House: The Special Edition
    Featuring "Building the Monkey House" by Gregory D. Sumner
    Dial Press, $18

A new Monkey House

Welcome To the Monkey House was first published in 1968, the year before Vonnegut would hit it big with Slaughter-House Five. Up to this point, Vonnegut had attained a reputation as a writer of distinctive, albeit quirky, fictions that were often found in the sci-fi corner of the literary mine.

The stories in Monkey House were decidedly commercial propositions, written at a time when popular magazines paid good money for them on a regular basis. Although Vonnegut constantly worried about money (he and his wife were raising six kids), he was able to earn a living by publishing in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Playboy and Ladies' Home Journal.

It's easy to see why Monkey House continues to attract readers. The stories are companionable — a quality Vonnegut emphasized above all — and unabashedly imaginative. They are driven by ideas having to do with what it means to be human and, in particular, American. If, at times, these narratives seem to function like Rube Goldberg gizmos, this is Vonnegut's way of playing with, even satirizing, expectations about how stories are supposed to work.

And writer's work is at the center of Gregory D. Sumner's closing essay, "Building the Monkey House: At Kurt Vonnegut's Writing Table." Here Sumner presents us with a sequence of iterations that Vonnegut worked through on his way to completing the collection's title story. We see the false starts and dead ends that had to be borne in order for the finished piece to come to life. Vonnegut, as Sumner makes clear, came to his seemingly effortless, conversational style through a painstaking attention to the nuances of every word he used. Comparisons with Flaubert ("le mot juste") are apt.

Two pieces in Monkey House stand out. Neither "Where I Live" nor "New Dictionary" are fictions. Though it seems to suggest the stories to come might be set in a particular place, perhaps linked, à la Winesburg, Ohio, "Where I Live," the first piece in the book, is actually an off-the-cuff introduction to Barnstable, Massachusetts, where Vonnegut wrote most, if not all, of the stories. He clearly loved the place for its natural beauty, social nonconformity and the casual tribalism of many of its first generation residents.

What's it doing in Welcome To the Monkey House? What secret authorial strategy is Vonnegut deploying here to throw us off the track before we're even started making tracks?

Beats me.

Something else is going on in "New Dictionary," a brilliant review of — I kid you not — the Random House Dictionary, written in 1967. Why this piece perches in Monkey House and not, say, in the nonfiction miscellany Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, seems, at first, incongruous. But who cares? The piece is a dazzling performance, turning a seemingly thankless assignment into a series of irreverently insightful riffs.

It's also a juicy bit of literary history. "New Dictionary" was originally printed in The New York Times, where publisher Seymour Lawrence read it, loved it and wrote to Vonnegut, saying his door was always open. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship — and its first fruit was Welcome To the Monkey House.

If This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice To the Young; The Graduation Speeches - Works selected and introduced by Dan Wakefield - Seven Stories Press, $21.95
  • If This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice To the Young; The Graduation Speeches
    Works selected and introduced by Dan Wakefield
    Seven Stories Press, $21.95

Forget sunscreen

The success of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 made Vonnegut a star. Not only were his books now eagerly awaited, people wanted to hear him speak. Soon Vonnegut was complementing his author's income with lucrative speaking fees, many of which were earned at college graduations.

This is probably the point at which to say that what many people still think of as Kurt Vonnegut's most famous graduation speech — the one about the virtues of using sunscreen and dancing and not paying too much attention to one's hair — was not written or delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. It was written by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune and, in 1997, went viral in cyberspace, a novelty at that time; "spooky," as far as KV was concerned.

But that's how famous he was, still is. People assumed that voice was his.

As Dan Wakefield, editor of the slim volume, If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, points out in his introduction, Vonnegut took his speaking engagements seriously. Rather than create a one-size-fits-all speech to be delivered over and over again, he tried to custom-tailor each address for the audience and occasion.

Which is not to say that each of the nine speeches collected here (including a memorable one for the ACLU of Indiana) is completely unique. Vonnegut had certain key ideas he wanted to get across and you'll find them running through this book like the patterns in a particularly pleasing wallpaper design.

Vonnegut's messages, says Wakefield in his introduction, "were not all sweetness and light by a long shot. There is always his despair at the destruction of the planet, his contempt for the politicians who get us into war from the safety of their age and position, our need for the extended families and puberty ceremonies that gave strength to past societies and whose absence plagues our own."

Anyone who has read Vonnegut's nonfiction, from Palm Sunday to Man Without a Country, will be familiar with the anecdotes and insights contained in these speeches. You could say this makes a collection like this one a kind of Vonnegut Lite. It's a little like one of those keepsake books you find in gift shops.

But then having a keepsake like this one ain't bad. The ideas are pithy, the wit is never less than provocative, the caring is real and the voice...remains inimitable.

Kurt Vonnegut: Drawings - Introduction by Nanette Vonnegut - The Monacelli Press, $40
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Drawings
    Introduction by Nanette Vonnegut
    The Monacelli Press, $40

The eye and hand

Vonnegut famously said that art makes your soul grow. A new collection of his drawings, handsomely published by Monacelli Press, shows that, for Vonnegut, the visual arts provided an especially soulful stimulant.

Although his daughter, Nanette Vonnegut, titles her introduction, "My father, the doodler," Vonnegut's drawings are remarkably accomplished. In fact, they are a revelation.

If writing was hard work for Vonnegut, drawing was a way, as he said, to get his rocks off. "The making of pictures is to writing what laughing gas is to the Asian influenza."

Kurt Vonnegut Drawings consists of 145 pictures Vonnegut sent to Nanette in the mid-1990s, in what she describes as "two unwieldy shipments."

The book is divided into 10 sections, interspersed with brief Vonnegut texts, including Abstraction, Women, Faces, Lines, and Things. The works therein show the influence of Modernists like Georges Braque, Alexander Calder and Joan Miro. But what is most remarkable about them is how readily one can identify congenial connections between the writing and the images.

There is an exploratory sense of humor on display here, the kind of willful play found in Vonnegut's approach to narrative form. And, in the self-portraits and pictures of women, a certain ruefulness. Also an instinctive penchant for compositional assemblage.

What is less expected are the confidence and sinuosity of Vonnegut's line, the uninhibited energy of his visual invention.

Although exact information about when many of these pieces were created is lacking, enough of them are dated for us to infer that Vonnegut went on creative binges with felt tip markers, working quickly and turning out several pieces in a matter of days. He is quoted — and was probably talking about himself: "The most satisfied of all painters is the one who can become intoxicated for hours or days or years with what his or her hands and eyes can do with art materials, and let the rest of the world go hang."


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