by Jason | 2/14/2014
" Biographies are written with one aim: to contextualize a noteworthy person within his or her own life beyond the limits of the works or deeds that make them noteworthy. We read them because we want to know what humanizes the subject, what events in their life led to their acts or creations. We wish to remove the statesman from the vacuum of politics, the musician from the three minute glimpse we get into him through his songs, the novelist from his characters and plot lines, because we want to know A) how they came to reside atop the pedestal on which they're placed, and B) to connect the dots between the person's life experiences and his achievements. There's an inherent risk in reading biographies, especially ones about our heroes, for while we want them humanized, to come to view them as "real" people to whom we can relate, and in relating somehow become closer to them, it's all too often the case that, just as a lot of real people in our day to day lives disappoint or annoy us, so too can our heroes in real life be quite disconnected from the expectations we have of them based on what we see of their public personas. It's a let down when we read that John Lennon was a razor-tongued asshole a lot of the time, or that Paul McCartney is given to egomania bordering on total narcissism. It takes away some of the glimmer of the holy image we have of Dr. King when we hear that he was given to infidelities even as he led the marches that helped build his reputation. Such is my feeling upon discovering that Kurt Vonnegut the character, the "first-person" narrator of many of his own books, and by extension many of his alter-egos, most notably Kilgore Trout, are often distinctly different than Kurt Vonnegut the man. How is it possible that the man who wrote, using Eliot Rosewater's voice, "God damn it, be nice to everybody!" be the same person who was so isolated from his own family, so much more a father to his own creations than to his own children, both natural born and adopted, that one of his sons had a complete mental breakdown, one of his daughters became anorexic, and his relations with five of the six were perpetually strained? How can the man who was so deeply affected by what he saw in the firebombing of Dresden be the same man who owned stock in Dow Chemical, the sole manufacturer of napalm during the Vietnam War, or the man who said the Earth's epitaph should read "We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap" own shares in a strip mining operation? Shields' impeccably researched and exceptionally well written biography sheds a light on all the facets of Vonnegut's life, personal and professional, and we find that the human flaws that Vonnegut so adroitly reflected in his body of work were, more often than not, his own. On some level this is disappointing, though on reflection, it shouldn't be that surprising. It was once said of Groucho Marx, who battled depression for much of his life, that he was a comedian who could make everyone laugh but himself. This seems to be largely true of Vonnegut. He was a genius writer, an original stylist and excellent commentator on the human condition, but he was also insecure, immature, and largely self-centered, to an extent that he spent large portions of his life more or less adrift and waiting to see where the next current might carry him. This certainly seems to be the case in his extra-marital relationship with, and later marriage to, photojournalist Jill Krementz. She comes off--at least in Shields' description--as overbearing and manipulative, controlling much of the movement of Vonnegut's later life more for her own ends than his. (In her defense, Shields may have been put-off by her rather fierce resistance to his writing the biography at all, and thereby painted her in a bad light, and anyway Kurt seemed to have no qualms about going along with the decisions she made for them both, whatever the root of their intentions may have been.) Like many highly intelligent types he crafted brilliant works, but he also had a knack for shooting himself in the foot. Where Kurt Vonnegut the character may have been reflective, Kurt Vonnegut the man was often reactionary, which many times led him to have to reverse his tracks to try to numb the wounds his words (both written and spoken) left on others. This is perhaps most pointedly reflected by his ex-wife Jane in one of her notes on his autobiographical collection Palm Sunday, which was published shortly after his second marriage: "Kurt doesn't mind being hurtful, really, although he talks a good game to make you think the opposite. He's fooled most of his public now, for a long time. You see, he doesn't really know what he's doing. He's really very innocent." I suppose it's a good lesson for the layman in regards to hero worship. Vonnegut famously said in Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." Never did he say we are what people expect us to be, and his life is proof enough that it's erroneous for we fans to take as synonymous the creator and the creation. I'm glad I got this book, glad I read it and had my eyes opened to the naivety of my own assumptions about the man based solely on reading his work. I look forward to a closer reading of some of my favorite Vonnegut novels with a light having been shined on the context of his life as it was unfolding around the narratives. Vonnegut is still one of my literary heroes, and I will continue to have heroes--artistic, theological, political--but maybe I'll be cautioned from here on out from putting them on too high a pedestal. It's unfair to both of us. "