The life of a once-lionized writer who is gradually, it seems, being forgotten today.
“We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Vonnegut in his novel Mother Night, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut didn’t pretend to be much, preferring to let others invent roles for him, such as shaggy-haired dispenser of goofy wisdom or the dark chronicler of the gloom and doom that technology and consumerism would one day visit upon us all. One has to feel some pity for Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, 2006, etc.), who began this biography with Vonnegut’s blessing; alas, Vonnegut died as Shields was beginning to work, and Vonnegut’s widow and son deauthorized the book, refusing to allow Shields to quote directly from a body of 258 letters that Shields himself had “received from his correspondents.” The result is a slightly choppy piece, though the main threads will be familiar to readers of Vonnegut’s work. For one thing, he was a moralist through and through—and a self-aware one who noted, “People are constantly demanding moralizing…that’s certainly what people want to hear when they ask me to lecture.” For another, Vonnegut quite deliberately chose the vehicle of science fiction to warn about the dangers of science—though, as Shields’ book illuminates, at least some of Vonnegut’s distaste for technology was a reaction to a brother with whom he had lifelong issues. Though guilty of unnecessarily overwritten passages, Shields is a sympathetic and responsive reader of Vonnegut’s work, which deserves to be taken seriously even when so often dismissed as literary pranksterism, and even though the last couple of decades of it frankly wasn’t very good. The author also cuts Vonnegut some of the necessary slack, since to be a writer by definition is to be a selfish and peevish being—and so Vonnegut was.
Indeed, Vonnegut emerges as irascible, ungenerous and usually unkind, “flinty, defensive, and sarcastic,” which will surely disappoint admirers who wanted him to be something better.