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Lost in the recent flurry of twentieth anniversaries—commemorations that included the first moon landing, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention, Woodstock, and the miracle of the Mets—was the 1969 release of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which Jerome Klinkowitz here defines right off as the critical work of the American 1960s as well as a landmark moment in the postmodern novel.
Klinkowitz pays only briefest attention to Vonnegut as moral spokesman to argue that the strength of the achievement here is in the production of the text. "The meaning of the book has been its production." With forceful clarity and an assured hand, Klinkowitz elucidates Vonnegut's dissatisfactions with the war novel and how, influenced by techniques of cinema and television, he recreated the novel, overthrowing "nearly every Aristotelian convention that had contributed to the novel's form in English." Klinkowitz defines four critical innovations: Vonnegut's careful disruptions of sequential narrative; the considerable authorial presence within the text; the manipulation throughout the narrative of an alternative genre, science fiction; and the deadpan style of black comedy. Klinkowitz focuses most on how Vonnegut approximates within the limits of the printed page a simultaniety of experiences—how we register all at once all the moments in Billy's pilgrimage. As such, Klinkowitz suggests, the novel is not as much an artifact as a system, a cooperative rearrangement of events that recreates a terrifying presence from a profound absence—the silence of those who witnessed the atrocity at Dresden.
The work here is bold and unapologetic—some may find a bit unsettling the critical exuberance (consider, for example, the hyperbolic title) so certain about the pedigree of a novel a scant twenty years into its literary life. In this Twayne series, Vonnegut joins, among other canonical heavyweights, Melville, James, and Conrad—illustrious company indeed. And certainly at times Klinkowitz jabs too strongly at those "establishment" critics unable to deed Vonnegut such enormous position. But the book here does what such books must—provide an indispensable guide to understanding the importance of the novel, an analysis that forsakes the tedium of repeating tired lines about the unapproachable horrors at Dresden to concentrate on what finally must matter—what happens within the novel. To summarize would only underrepresent. Page after page reveals even to readers quite familiar with the book nuances and ironies in Vonnegut's text. From the opening with its exhaustive chronology to the closing chapter, which publishes for the first time some of Vonnegut's wartime letters, Klinkowitz's study stays thorough (despite its brevity) and accessibly written, far exceeding the expectations of a reader's guide.
Finishing the study, the reader has only one quibble. For all the assertions of Vonnegut's novel as landmark moment, the editors might have encouraged Klinkowitz to close with a more definitive assessment of the novel's impact, on specific writers, perhaps, or on the war novel, or on the direction of the postmodern [End Page 576] novel, a genre of experimental fiction that would seem now, a scant twenty years later, to be verging on the passé. Klinkowitz's impressive credentials as exponent of the postmodern movement would have made for an engaging discussion of the influence of Vonnegut's marvelous little book.
Last spring, amid the glaring whitenoise of newsmagazines and tabloids covering the coincidental deaths of Jim Henson and Sammy Davis, Jr., the death of Walker Percy received scant notice. A novelist of extraordinary perception whose savage, ironic eye had surveyed for nearly thirty years the devastations of the Secular City passed with little fanfare. Mary Deems Howland's disappointing study offers a system of approaching Percy's fiction—she covers each of Percy's six novels—using as model the Christian existentialist...