restricted access Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, and: Truth in American Fiction: The Legacy of Rhetorical Idealism (review)
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Reviewed by
Leonard Mustazza. Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1990. 223 pp. No price given.
Janet Gabler-Hover. Truth in American Fiction: The Legacy of Rhetorical Idealism. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 288 pp. $35.00.

To approach Vonnegut through the Bible seems a most promising idea—a writer with the uncompromising moralism of a raging Old Testament prophet adrift in a most uncertain time. And to argue, as Mustazza does, that Vonnegut's best work has come since Breakfast of Champions would promise a most engaging argument, a challenging revision of Vonnegut's all-too-familiar position in midcentury American literature. Yet Mustazza's argument cannot carry the weight of its own promise. It is perhaps a problem with the awkward deference this study pays to other Vonnegut criticism; exhaustive rehashing of standard Vonnegut criticism lards each chapter and leaves Mustazza only the job of retinkering—this critic has not gone "far enough,"this one is "valid to a point, but." Such strategic acknowledgements leave the present work largely the job of splitting intrepretative hairs, fine tuning already familiar perceptions of Vonnegut's radical love/hate relationship with the human species.

A more disturbing problem, however, emerges as it becomes clear how inexact Mustazza intends to use the idea of pursuing Genesis, a phrase he borrows from a Vonnegut essay. The idea is that Vonnegut's characters across his canon seek artificial constructs—fragile Edens apart from a larger universe of collapsing possibilities. These characters try to escape such oppressive reality either by trying to reform the world (a doomed enterprise) or by trying to flee its immediacy (a dangerous fantasy). In either case, Mustazza argues, the reader is in a difficult position of sympathizing with the urge to escape but recognizing such alternative strategies are simply unworkable. The problems emerge from Mustazza's rather generous application of the term Genesis—forsaking consisent definition the argument here leaves the term a baggy catchall for every concept of human improvement, including farfetched social utopias, earnest expressions of love, gestures of compassion urged by the Sermon on the Mount, technological innovations, acts of simple human decency, and even something called "inner righteousness"—in short, virtually any move we make to try to improve an otherwise absurdly dismal position in an oppressively chaotic contemporary multiverse.

Perhaps a stronger use of the Biblical model that the title promises might have secured a far more significant reading of Vonnegut, indeed a revisionist reading that would locate Vonnegut not within the exhausted tradition of postmodernism, not within the caustic satire of Twain but rather within the uncompromising [End Page 486] moralism of Hawthorne and Melville. But no contemporary Old Testament criticism is made available to this argument; rather at odd and rather unconvincing moments the study insists on bringing in John Milton to help iron out Old Testament interpretative notions. But in the final analysis the largest disappointment here is Mustazza's insistence on leaving so many of his decisions as critic to the simple freedom of judgment calls about characters' worth and value, assertions that are as infuriating as saloon arguments over the best centerfielder or the best power forward. Many judgments are curious, most often because Mustazza seems rather unwilling to factor in possibilities of Vonnegut's cutting irony; hence, Eliot Rosewater is a bit too saintly, Billy Pilgrim a bit too sympathetic, Asa Breed a bit too villainous, Wilbur Swain a bit too heroic, and so on. Most curiously, Mustazza resolutely insists not only that Vonnegut's best work has come since 1980 but that Vonnegut's vision has considerably lightened. Indeed, Mustazza finds the evolutionary fable of Galapagos, in which Vonnegut evolves us out of brains and hands, Vonnegut's most satisfying work as Nature finally corrects our tendency to do each other harm, exacting for payment only our ability to think, reason, feel, and create.

The work here is in soft focus. The author is pictured on the back cover with Vonnegut, arm resting comfortably about the critic's shoulder. Perhaps the problem is just such geniality—too much sunshine on Vonnegut's work spoils the...


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