- Pretending to Be
Of the five volumes presently available in the Vonnegut estate’s posthumous publications program, We Are What We Pretend to Be makes the most historical sense. Not because its two novella-length works of fiction have literary merit. They don’t, and as texts rejected in the author’s lifetime and published now will give unfriendly critics plenty of arguments for how Kurt Vonnegut was not a good writer. But they do relate in interesting ways to the Vonnegut cannon that has survived mean-spirited attacks since it’s beginning. They are indeed the first and the last of the man’s longer fiction, and show quite well the talents that had yet to be perfected for Player Piano (1952) and which had deteriorated after Timequake (1997). The first, “Basic Training” dates from 1950, and the second, “If God Were Alive Today” from 2000. Can any novelist be expected to write in top form for fifty years, spanning a half-century of such radical social, political, cultural, and even material change? That Vonnegut did produce excellent fiction for forty-five years, and good essays even longer, is what matters. The two pieces collected as We Are What We Pretend to Be simply anticipate what was to come and look back at what was lost.
“Basic Training” was probably circulated in novella form, a different item to sell at best, because its author had yet to find ways for growing beyond the short story format that was just then getting into the pages of the weekly family magazines. Its situation is much the same as for Kurt Vonnegut’s earliest stories in Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post: a recently orphaned teenager is sent to live with an uncle who runs his own family like a military camp, a version of the initiation story that could be retold endlessly for any situation with which a magazine reader would be familiar. The military discipline, still a fresh memory from World War II, is given fresh originality by being recast in a domestic situation. But in that situation are all the formulaic elements that make popular stories so reader friendly, from a blustering but ultimately warm hearted father to three sisters whose personalities are as different as any trio of female siblings in a fairy tale. One of them becomes both a romantic interest and a promise of better things to come; unsurprisingly, her name is Hope. That much of “Basic Training” reprises the best of Vonnegut’s short fiction. The worst of it becomes painfully evident as the author tries to extend the action to feature length, disrupting the already problematic family situation with a reckless accident, a madcap flight, a murder, and a miraculous return. Yet from an historical perspective, the interest is not in how awkward these plot developments are, but in how just two years later, in Player Piano, the writer was able to hold even more diverse elements together in a way that seemed surprising but ultimately credible.
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“If God Were Alive Today” is the product of a life that had over the past five decades produced not just novels that held together but took great risks in doing so. Formulas were as much a part of Vonnegut’s novels as his short stories, but in longer form they could be artfully deconstructed: utopias in Player Piano, apocalypse in Cat’s Cradle (1963), and so forth, until by the time of Timequake so many years later the author could provide not just meta-fictive experiment but the creditable autobiography of a novel. At which point he began working on “If God Were Alive Today,” a projected novel whose inventive energy did not extend much farther than its catchy title. Over the years Vonnegut’s fiction had included journalistic reflection and personal confession, even as his essays employed the style of his fiction. “If God Were Alive Today” reflects the situation Kurt found himself in...