Kurt Vonnegut belongs in that tributary of American literature occupied by outsiders such as Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain who are, in Thoreau's arresting phrase, not considered "parlor safe"—that is, not considered acceptable in polite society. Like Thoreau and Twain, Vonnegut continually attacks, criticizes, and pinions American failings and shortcomings. I have argued elsewhere that in addition he may well be the representative writer of post-World War II America (The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American, 2003). A literary moralist, his writing reflects Kilgore Trout's notion that the writer is "to be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe" (Breakfast of Champions 67)—a role perhaps more appropriate for an Old Testament prophet than a popular writer. In the United States with few exceptions such prophets have all too often been evangelists for Social Darwinism and/or hucksters enriching themselves at the expense of the ignorant and the poor. Where Mark Twain satirized the ignorant who fell for such nonsense, Vonnegut satirizes the hucksters themselves in Cat's Cradle, Galápagos, Bluebeard, and Hocus Pocus.
In The Vonnegut Effect, Jerome Klinkowitz makes large claims for Vonnegut as an innovative, postmodern writer—one who clearly enlarges the range of fiction while holding up a mirror to his times and functioning as a spokesperson for those times (see also Vonnegut in Fact: the Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction). Such claims will be familiar from Klinkowitz's other two full-length treatments of Vonnegut's works, his earlier two collections of coedited essays, his important review of Slapstick, major essay on Timequake, and coedited early bibliography. In this new study, he delineates what he [End Page 718] calls, the "Vonnegut effect" by focusing on the form and construction of both the fiction and non-fiction where he finds Vonnegut asserting "in a personal vernacular . . . such insights [as] laughter [is] as honorable as tears" (126) and doing so using a "tone of personal speech, honest and frank and unstylized" (176), "a simple vernacular unheard in serious fiction for almost one hundred years" (185). For Klinkovitz, as for most commentators on Vonnegut, the "most obvious trait . . . [his work] displays is originality of imagination" (188). For him Vonnegut "is the single . . . author to have won and sustained a great popular acceptance while embracing the more radical forms and themes of postmodern literature" (ix). With considerable authority, Klinkowitz goes on to explore these forms and themes. While many might quarrel with some members of the postmodern company Klinkowitz sees Vonnegut keeping (such as Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman), few will reject his assertion of the nature and kind of Vonnegut's originality, especially given the previous work by Kathryn Hume, Leonard Mustazza, and Kevin Alexander Boon.
Perhaps the most brilliant chapters in this study are those on Slaughterhouse-Five where he postulates a third order of time, the reader's; Breakfast of Champions, "Vonnegut's most thoroughly developed novel of ideas"; and Timequake, which he sees as a novel "in the making" (152). Each offers a stimulating reading of these important novels within the context of Vonnegut's life and times.
This thoughtful and discerning discussion of Vonnegut's fiction does, however, sometimes suffer from unfortunate memory lapses, such as when Klinkowitz attributes humanity's demise in Galápagos to worldwide nuclear war. That potential disaster Vonnegut explored earlier in Cat's Cradle but here war proves not the feared nuclear World War III but a local one between Peru and Ecuador fought with nonatomic weapons. The human race still dies out but because Nature rather than war went about "kill[ing] them all" (Galápagos 25) with an in utero virus that eats human eggs—Vonnegut's prescient metaphor for a pandemic to end all pandemics. First observed at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the virus spreads throughout the world sterilizing all humans except those few on the new Ark that restart the human race destined to evolve over a million years until it ceases to be a danger to the planet. Other misconstrued or misread...