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Kurt Vonnegut's First And Last Love Letter To His Readers

By Maggie Hellwig in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 16, 2012 10:05PM

Vanguard Press, October 2012.

There are two things that Kurt Vonnegut certainly never lacked during his turbulent life: imagination and great quotes. His artistry is exemplified by the sheer number of books he wrote, about 27 in total, not to mention his contributions to anthologies; introductions he wrote for others; and scripts he composed. The quotes, some of which Vonnegut lovers have committed to memory, range from the first line of Slaughterhouse Five—"Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time."—to his self-interview in Palm Sunday—"Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak."

We were taken aback, almost haunted, by the title of Vonnegut's postmortem release last month. We Are What We Pretend To Be, is quoted from his novel Mother Night, heralding, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." The book, published by Vanguard Press on Oct. 9, contains Vonnegut's first novella, Basic Training, and his unfinished work, If God Were Alive Today.

In Basic Training the reader sees the roots of Vonnegut's episodic style, likened to an "unhinged Mark Twain" by Publisher's Weekly. The cast is typically zany: a homicidal farm hand; a terrifyingly militant uncle referred to as "The General;" and three outspoken female cousins. There is abandonment, and there is hitchhiking—all of which makes for the poignant and bizarre story line that we have come to expect from Vonnegut. If God Were Alive Today contains very similar wisdom to that in A Man Without A Country. On the soapbox, however, is fictional character Gil Berman, a clearly unhinged comedian. No matter how cynical Berman's rants on politics and American values are, we can hear Vonnegut preaching to us through this twice-institutionalized entertainer, and there are truths that hit home. There is little doubt that the character's (very) long spiels would have been edited, had Vonnegut lived to undergo the process, but it's almost refreshing to read such unsolicited, and at times rambling, passion.

The book is fleshed out with an introduction written by his youngest daughter, Nanette. She not only speaks on the two pieces of fiction, but also as his youngest daughter. On the topic of love advice, she had this to say about her father:

"Most times I'd find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like 'How many times have you been in love?' His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers. I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair."

His response to Nanette is quite often how he delivered advice to his readers—to the point, brief, but stated with absolute truth. It is because of the shrill candidness of his words that we have become, and remain to be, enamored by Vonnegut's work. His legacy, no matter how absurd the premise or backward the delivery, has affected American literature and social commentary perhaps for generations to come.