Kurt Vonnegut's Unpublished Writings

Armageddon in Retrospect collects the late fabulist's work on war

But if Vonnegut wasn't depressed, then how did he get to be so funny? It's been said that humor is the polite form of despair, and certainly both are essential ingredients in his work. One reason Cat's Cradle (1963) is so wildly comic, for instance, is because everyone dies in the end. The stakes needed to be that high.

Laughter and heartbreak is an unstable combination, however, liable to fall apart into corniness or sentimentality. There are mushy stories in Armageddon in Retrospect, like the small, lovely fantasy "The Unicorn Trap," in which a pair of oppressed peasants, father and son, accidentally do away with their oppressor. There are also corny, too-easy stories, like "Happy Birthday, 1951," about a boy, raised in the rubble of war, who is taken to see trees for the first time but would rather play on the carcass of a tank. Sappiness, impracticality: It's the curse of the left. You end up, like Vonnegut did, shaking your fist at fossil fuels and multinationals in the pages of In These Times—still wise, but no longer unpredictable.

Armageddon in Retrospect isn't full of posthumous discoveries. But on the other hand, Vonnegut's reputation may not need all that much help. Granted, when he finally told the truth about his experience, it came out a little weird. But Vonnegut has proved more enduring than the counterculture that embraced him. "He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was," Mark writes. "If you ever think something he wrote was sloppy, you might be right, but just to be sure, read it again."

The early stories illustrate the traps he didn't fall into: Vonnegut in 1969.
Photo by Gil Friedberg/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
The early stories illustrate the traps he didn't fall into: Vonnegut in 1969.

Details

Armageddon in Retrospect, and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
By Kurt Vonnegut
Putnam, 240 pp., $24.95

Besides, he bet on science fiction rather than postmodernism or suburban satire, and right now genre writing seems to be a winning horse. In his last novel, Timequake (1997), in a clever bit of bluff, Vonnegut even had Kilgore Trout—his hapless, reclusive, science-fiction-dreaming alter ego—single-handedly save the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

So who knows? At any rate, a future that reveres Vonnegut as an ancestor probably wouldn't be such a bad place to be.

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