Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

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Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A posthumous collection of unpublished stories and articles that is a poor epitaph for a man who was once a great writer.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 240 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224085397

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I have been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut since the early 1970s. I still have the old paperbacks – Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5. There was something about his style, and especially about the things he had to say, that was refreshing and new. But he began to go off the boil, or fell out of style, and I stopped reading his books around about the time I stopped buying Crosby, Stills and Nash LPs. For me, Breakfast of Champions was both the last decent book he wrote, and the first of the stream of below-par books that followed. I just checked my bookcase – Slapstick in 1976 was the last Vonnegut book I bought, and the ancient bookmark stuffed midway through shows I never managed to finish it. And I had problems trying to finish his 'new' collection, too.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve previously unpublished short stories and articles. The collection has been compiled posthumously by his son Mark Vonnegut, ostensibly as a tribute to his late father and to commemorate the first anniversary of the author's death. But these stories are a poor epitaph for a man who was once a great writer.

The collection opens strongly enough with a facsimile of a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to his own father, dated May 1945 and sent from Le Havre POW Repatriation Camp. The letter, its contents and the events that lay behind it inform everything that appears in the subsequent pages of this book (and many of the novels that Vonnegut wrote from Slaughterhouse 5 onwards). It also goes some way to answering that perennial question at book signings and author events: 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Most of the ideas in these stories can be traced back to that letter home, and to Vonnegut's experiences of the war in 1945.

The first story, Wailing Shall Be in All Streets, is actually an essay, a memoir that adds a little detail and commentary to the bare facts set out in his 1945 letter. The piece begins in the narrator's basic training, with a 'wiry little lieutenant' telling the men to forget the Marquis of Queensbury rules and every other set of rules – they were going to be trained to become the meanest, dirtiest killers. Kill, kill, kill, do you understand? In many ways, this straightforward memoir is the strongest piece in the book.

The following stories are all fictional developments in some way of this essay and the 1945 letter home that precedes it. Great Day is set in the year 2037: a boy from LuVerne, Indiana joins the Army of the World to help keep the peace at a time when war is history and men like Captain Poritsky, who were born to fight, are rusting inside. So these warfaring men invent a time machine to take them back to the Great War of 1918 to enable them to practice killing . . . except something goes wrong.

Guns Before Butter is a tale of captured American GIs in 1945 Dresden, who survive by imagining the feasts they will have when they get home. Happy Birthday 1951 is also set in Germany, where an elderly man of peace tries to bring up a boy who misses the violent excitement of war. Brighten Up is set in a 1945 prisoner-of-war camp in Dresden. And so it goes.

The further I read, the weaker the stories became. Maybe it was because I had already got the point right at the start, but the stories seemed to become increasingly predictable and, well, a little embarrassing. There is a reason why these stories could not be published during Kurt's lifetime.

In his introduction, Mark Vonnegut asks of his father, How could he get away with it? A question he might well redirect towards himself for bringing out a collection that, in this reviewer's humble opinion, should have remained unpublished.

Further reading suggestion: Slaughterhouse 5 is classic Vonnegut, and a much better indication of the writer he once was. David Rieff has written about the death of his mother, essayist Susan Sontag and Swimming in a Sea of Death is a better tribute to a parent.

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