- Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography by Robert T. Tally Jr.
How does one place Kurt Vonnegut in the American literary canon? Is he an acclaimed postmodern revolutionary author or a marginal science-fiction dark humorist? Robert T. Tally Jr. addresses this question that continues to arise in considerations of Vonnegut’s works. Tally contends that scholars are not sure where to place Vonnegut’s literary achievements; some, like Jerome Klinkowitz and Todd Davis, place him firmly within Postmodernism, while others have trouble taking his work seriously and continue to label him as marginal. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography asserts that Vonnegut is neither a postmodern author nor a marginal one; instead, Tally argues that Vonnegut is a modern author tackling postmodern issues, in search of creating the “great American novel.” Tally contends, though, that Vonnegut fails at achieving this elusive goal. His works portray [End Page 315] postmodern American culture and its concepts of idealism, political, economic, and social superiority, and personal identity and responsibility. Yet they purposefully fail to capture the totality of American culture in its present moment because, as Tally argues, Vonnegut serves the role of iconographer and iconoclast; he is a critic of postmodern America, never achieving the “great American novel” because he places postmodern America within a modern context. Vonnegut’s iconoclasm allows his works to hold critical literary merit, not because they capture postmodern American culture, but because in their portrayal and criticism of it, they help readers better understand themselves.
Tally analyzes Vonnegut’s fourteen novels to show Vonnegut as an untimely modernist in a postmodern America. He proceeds in chronological order of publication, stating that Vonnegut’s first novels, Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, are among his most frustrated and pessimistic. Tally discusses Vonnegut’s embrace of “misanthropic humanism” as a dominant theme in all of his works. In these initial novels, Vonnegut points out postmodern America as politically, socially, and psychologically flawed. Vonnegut’s “misanthropic humanism” reveals that these problems will not go away because they are intrinsically tied to human nature. Though Vonnegut presents his America in postmodern terms, his message is modern: “Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism offers a model for understanding this [postmodern] condition, while also forcing the writer and the reader to look for other avenues leading to one’s sense of purpose in the world” (xvi).
Tally moves to an exploration of Vonnegut’s Mother Night, which, he states, addresses the impossibility of living a modern “authentic” life in postmodern America. According to Tally, Mother Night questions the purpose of human existence; it calls for evaluation of self in a fractured and meaningless world, and its message continues into Vonnegut’s next novels, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In these novels, Tally finds a more secured stance of optimism through personal ethical responsibility, which ultimately becomes part of all of Vonnegut’s works and is achieved only through personal separation and examination of one’s place in the world. Tally continues with a discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, asserting that though these novels perhaps appear the most postmodern in format and content, they again reveal a modern message of morality. Both novels embrace the fated nihilistic components of postmodern culture, while at the same time maintaining a modern love of the ridiculousness of postmodernism and a belief in the good qualities of humankind that continue even among absurdity.
Vonnegut’s Slapstick and Jailbird continue to show elements from his earlier novels, but focus largely on the human desire for false security within corrupt communities. Both novels look towards the social and political failures of postmodern America in order to ask readers to abandon hope through institutions. Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard are, according to Tally, imperative to Vonnegut’s repertoire because they detail an alternative to the postmodern condition: these novels reveal Vonnegut’s means towards maintaining a modern sense of meaning in his own life and provide characters that persevere—through the “abstract idealism” (114...