You are on page 1of 4

The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American by Donald E.

Morse Review by: Christian Moraru Utopian Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2004), pp. 139-141 Published by: Penn State University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20718648 . Accessed: 29/02/2012 11:27
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Penn State University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Utopian Studies.

http://www.jstor.org

Book Reviews

139

are only shown in the section discussing the Non-religious western traditions views of Ludwig Feuerbach,Marx and Sigmund Freud.While McGrath finds a tra not every dition from Feuerbach through Freud, theend of thesectiononly notes that
one

song "Imagine" as part of theFeuerbach tradition, though,is interestingly jarring. In spite of the shortfalls,I would recommend thisbook. While I might have thatis not there, liked some information overall I found the readability tobe excel lent,and thepresentationaccessible. McGrath has written a dense work, thougha
deceptively short one. For the casual

agreed

with

these views.

The

section's

final

reference

to John Lennon

and his

I introduction. Given the stated aim of thebook in the Introduction, think McGrath has hithismark.
Mark Howard W. Cannon Hall-Patton Museum Nevada Aviation

reader, or the undergraduate

class,

this is a fine

Henderson,

Donald E. Morse. The Novels ofKurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American.


Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. xxi + 203 pp. $64.95 (cloth). TheNovels of Kurt Vonnegut bears theusual marks of thecriticismon the subject: honest, solid scholarship grounded in fine close readings of individual texts and
life, career, well-known and so forth. Indeed, and not so E. Donald

Morse's book proves one more time thatthe is with Vonnegut industry in full swing, Klinkowitz leading the scholarly pack now as thirty prominentcritics like Jerome years ago (a new Vonnegut monograph by Klinkowitz is forthcomingfromU of South Carolina P). Besides Klinkowitz, Peter J.Reed andMorse himself,authorof a Reader's Guide toKurt Vonnegut, are among thenames thatcome tomind first.
Some

backed up by thorough research on the author's well-known interviews, publications, speeches,

writer himself has dwelt upon "theories," ideologies, scientificparadigms, all, the
and similar matters. But then at least

Vonnegut texts, and it bears

critics

have

bitten

the bullet

and

theorized

pointing

out that this approach his stance toward

need not be necessarily be called,

in the margins of his abusive. After

advice

on tions,and unchecked deductions.To his credit, Vonnegut has been unflinchingly theside of thehuman exception.His approach has been ratherinductive;his implicit
to his readers: historicize (not "always," just adequately, as the case may be).

skeptical,

arguably, incredulous

could

catch-all

formulas,

if not anti-theoretical, abstrac free-floating

Like others, Morse responds to thecall ofVonnegut's work with an inductive method. His book is by and large a (xiv) and historicizing, rather than theorizing discussion of Vonnegut's novels. The critical sur fairlychronologically structured Morse vey has a focus, albeit not particularly tight."The emphasis of this study,"
announces far as literary representation not, started with

relation to American experience, and their distinguishingfeaturesas fiction."But, as


of "American experience" goes, there is no "zero degree" a clean slate. For half a century,

in the Preface,

"falls

...

on

the value

of reading Vonnegut's

novels,

their

have

culturally and historically speaking; thepostmodernVonnegut has not, and could


he has

"I have attempted," Morse and distinc between goes on, "to draw parallels tive affinities with Vonnegut's work and that of other American authors, especially and Mark Twain. Emerson, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau,

tradition.

ined this experience in direct and indirect intertextual dialogue with a prestigious

imagined

and re-imag

140 UTOPIAN STUDIES

andWalt Whitman in thenineteenthcenturyattemptedto imagine a new American literature and culture free from the influence and constraintsof Europe?one that would sound its 'barbaricyawp over therooftopsof the world.' Vonnegut imagining being an American in the second half of the twentieth centurydoes so against the of their ifconsiderable, achievement" (xiv). backdrop partial, Vonnegut's popularity in the academy and,more significantly still,outside its fic major, publicly relevantundertakingis afoot inVonnegut's work, a project that, tional as it may be, speaks to a central collective anxiety: the anxietyof self-repre sentation, the dilemma of collective identity,the question, simply put, of what it means tobe anAmerican in the second half of the American century. Morse shows that main issues, problems, and Vonnegut has identifiedearly on in his career the historical crises whose literarytreatment are likely to yield thebest answers. The constant focus onWorld War II, the Vietnam episode, theCold War, on Bomb, the theone hand, thenscience, technology,ecology, public life and institutions, the on most representative writers of our time. In other,has graduallymade him one of the maintains in the Introductionthat"Vonnegutmay well be the repre fact, the critic sentative American writer of the latter half of the twentieth century"(1) for thegen eration of readers living through theDepression, witnessing, if not fighting in, World War II, thencopingwith thefifties,their corporate ambiguities, technological breed serenity": this is theepigraph to Morse's second chapter,but it would apply, I whole book because it rendersjustice toVonnegut's entireoeuvre. The think,to the
critic expansion, social inequities, dubious politics, and so on. "Novel writing doesn't ivory walls bears out Morse's thesis. Readers of all categories have sensed that a

disturbedby thevalues of thesociety in which he findshimself (19). And also like


Twain,

insists,

the contemporary

novelist

"remains," his

not unlike His

Twain,

"profoundly work

consistentlyhad shock value ever sincePlayer Piano (1952). To be sure, Vonnegut


sets out able answers

Vonnegut

is intent upon

"disturbing"

readers.

novelistic

has

novels?with lar?and

sort of "shift in attitude and tone" (23) between pre-5laughterhouse-Five (1969)


Cat's and Mother the most popu Cradle, Player Piano, among Night the later novels. The former tend to accept, rather pessimistically, the pres in on particular agents of suffering and destruction on a somehow

to rock the boat of our and question comfort deepest beliefs, raise questions to be. As Morse one observes, regarding who we are or want registers a

ence of evil inhistory. seem tobe challenging thispresencemore forcefully The latter optimisticnote,which lays emphasis on "human kinship and love" (23). Still, the satiric,black humoresque, dystopian ratherthanUtopianvision holds sway throughout. Vonnegut never quite abandons his criticismofAmerican society and culture. His view ofAmericanness is,one more time,criticistinnature,deployed negatively by limningextreme situations and gloomy possibilities. Player Piano, which pays intertextual homage toTwain?and to a whole traditionthatgoes back to Montesquieu andVoltaire?uncovers thedehumanizingpotential of computeriza tion (33) and asks,What happens to us when who and what we are is no longer decided by humans?Would we still boast an agency, an identity all? But then, at
even ifwe decisions?is ons, Deadeye cal, nuclear, are still the decisions?the making our advantage? the progress?to and other novels document Dick, or ecological self-annihilation, deconstructing etc.?are these discoveries, progress, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champi for technologi vividly our penchant our self-congratulatory by zeroing more

tales to expose their the underbellies, theuntold and unspeakable tradeoffs, pricewe un Mother Night asks, is this identity pay for our questionable victories. Further, changed, stable, one! What about Howard W. Campbell's? How American was he when hewas passing himselfoff?so successfully?as a Nazi sympathizer(and vice

Book Reviews

141

versa) (53-58)? Or, as Vonnegut invitesus to ask ourselves in thepost-evolutionary (devolutionary?)fableGalapagos and elsewhere, arewe not betteroffby identifying ourselves with, and perhaps becoming, a differentspecies, "posthuman"?Morse remindsus thatsome criticshave found the Galapagos scheme implausible.But, he is also rightto respond, this is hardly thepoint.The point does not lie in theverisi militude of the mock-Darwinian metamorphoses involvedbut in theforce of a criti cal vision thatuses biological metaphors and other sci-fi, Utopian, and dystopian projections to "disturb"us, topunctureour uncriticalpipedreams.Morse has done a fine job of casting lighton thisdefiningaspect ofVonnegut's work. Christian Moraru North Carolina, Greensboro Universityof

Christopher Palmer. Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern.


Liverpool: Liverpool UniversityPress, 2003. ix + 239 pp. ?18.95. This stimulating book studies the fictionof Philip K. Dick and its relationshipto
postmodernism. In this context it examines various tensions in Dick's work?

notably those between novelistic realism and Dick's impulse towards fantasyand narrative whimsicality, between the isolated individual and the social or transcen dominate or infiltrate dental entities that Dick's fictive worlds, between thepolitical of and the theological implications Dick's SF, and, above all, betweenDick's human istand ethical impulses and theposthumanistconditions in his novels thatinevitably
threaten them.

The Preface presents these issues clearly and gracefully,alongwith an apt and
and undecided" pontificating to focus on "historical book

gloomy, unquenchable writer, affectionate and cynical, empathetic and paranoid,


It also describes the scope and purpose of the (viii). our under and formal issues" (viii) and "to broaden

sympathetic

description

of Dick

as "a humorous,

exaggerating,

excessive,

restless,

standingof Dick's fiction and our age" (ix). In each chapter,Christopher Palmer draws parallels between various aspects ofDick's vision and sensibilityand thecul tural,economic, and social conditions of his era. Especially thoughtful examples of this approach include his analyses of theNazis, in TheMan in the High Castle, as agents of the irrationalviolence of twentieth-century history, of the imagery of accelerated time, in Martian Time Slip, as a metaphor for "the nullityof capitalism" (158), of Through a Scanner Darkly as a portrayalof "a narrowingdown and strip in ping away of personal identity postmodern society" (177), and of thevarious tran scendent powers thatpermeateDick's SF as images of our dominant postmodern cultureof consumption.Palmer clearly continues the tradition Marxist Dick criti of cism thatPeter Fitting initiated in 1975 in his groundbreaking"Ubik: theDecon of struction Bourgeois SF." Within this social and political context,at an aesthetic
and metafictive

versions and struggles with closure thatare perhaps thedistinctivecharacteristicof Dick's fiction. IfDick's fictiveworlds often?to borrow from the book title? involve terror, narrative trickery his with themis perhaps the truest expression of his
aesthetic exhilaration.

level, Palmer

also

perceptively

examines

the various

narrative

sub

Exhilaration and Terror is divided into twoparts, thefirsta generally thematic works in group of threechapters,and thesecond, nine chapters thatfocus on specific