Delacorte, 1974, 285 pages, $??.?? hc, ISBN 0-440-08717-1
In the big list of things I still have to do, “Read more Kurt Vonnegut” remains essential. While Vonnegut is best-known for his fiction, his public persona is equally well-defined by the non-fiction he has written over his long career. Published in 1974, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons collects some of Vonnegut’s non-fiction pieces dating from 1965 to 1974. This period is significant in that it marked a significant transition for the author: Two of his best-known novels, Slaughterhouse Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), were published during this period, and his profile appreciated accordingly. Read the collection carefully, and you can almost see the transition, as Vonnegut goes from writing semi-journalism pieces, to opining professionally, to becoming the subject of lengthy interviews.
An unusually interesting preface presents Vonnegut at his best: self-reflective to the point of self-deprecation, expressing complex ideas with short sentences and simple vocabulary. It’s easy to become a Vonnegut fan when he seems determined to undermine the false elevation of the writer in the reader’s mind. I suppose that this, in large part, also accounts for Vonnegut’s reputation as a humanist.
For Science Fiction fans with lengthy memories, the book opens big with a short piece examining Vonnegut’s relationship with the SF genre as of 1965: Vonnegut found himself identified with the genre through what he wrote rather than his intentions. (“I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer” [P.1]) Having no association with the SF community, he spends much of the essay looking at the genre from a bemused observer’s point of view, eventually concluding that the genre is infantile, self-centered and doomed to disappear, since “all lodges [dissolve], sooner or later.” [p.5] SF fans will find it hard not to cringe at the accuracy of the statement. (Amusingly, the book also collects “Fortitude”, which is nothing but a Science Fiction play in one act. Vonnegut himself published in acknowledged SF magazines early in his career, making some bewildered statements seem disingenuous.) Curiously, this essay is seldom acknowledged in SF circles.
But then again, I do live a sheltered existence, and it’s pieces like “Brief Encounters on the Inland Waterway” that make me wonder at how much of the world I still don’t know. The Inland Waterway, or more accurately “Intracostal Waterway”, is a set of waterways allowing boaters along the eastern and southern American seaboard to navigate from New Jersey to Texas without having to brave the open sea. Vonnegut used it to travel from Massachusetts to Florida aboard the Kennedy family yacht, and reports his impressions in a series of short, simple vignettes that give a feel for an entirely different world than highway driving. Digging a bit deeper, I was even more surprised to find out that the Intracostal Waterway links to a nautical route called “The Great Loop”, a component of which passes not a kilometer away from my house. So, yeah; I live next to a water highway leading straight to Florida. That’s not exactly the kind of discovery I expected when I picked up Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons at a used book sale, but I’ll take it.
Other pieces mix reporting with opinion. “Teaching the Unteachable” is an acid look at the racket of university writing workshops; “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas” is a half-serene, half-sceptical profile of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; “There’s a Maniac Loose Out There” offers an impressionistic account of Cape Cod dealing with a serial killer, somewhat reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson (whose Fear and Loathing: On the campaign Trail ’72 is favourably reviewed later in the book); “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky” is a portrait of the historical celebrity, whereas, more grimly, “Biafra: A People Betrayed” offers impression on the war-torn African country.
But reporting isn’t Vonnegut’s strength as much as his commentary is. America from 1965 to 1974 was a cauldron of controversies and revolution, and Vonnegut was there to comment upon the events. Various pieces consider the American Space Program as an expensive fireworks show, bombing in Vietnam as ineffective torture and American politics as set-dressing for a war of the winners against the losers. Various addresses to various audiences offer Vonnegut speaking directly to his audience. The book ends on a lengthy and revealing Playboy interview discussing his inspirations, history, writing methods and progressive prominence as a writer.
The result, as you may expect, is a quirky packaging of pieces that show Vonnegut during one of his most vital periods. It’s a great way to get acquainted with Vonnegut’s voice, even though I suspect that fans of the author will get the most out of it. It’s funny; it’s deceptively easy to read and it combines sympathy with cynicism in a way that only Vonnegut could achieve.