Thursday, June 03, 2010

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

After the stifling artificial control of my last piece of reading, Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, what better antidote than the master of the random observation, Kurt Vonnegut? No deliberate concealment from KV (“Within a month she would be dead”). No mannered metaphors for human destructiveness. No didactic conversations to force home points. What you get with Kurt Vonnegut is a random story, randomly told, some cookery recipes (which may or may not result in edible food), some interjected screenplay instead of dialogue, and lots of exclamation marks. Well – why not! That’s how it happens!

Deadeye Dick is a story about life. It is obsessed with the start of life and the end of life (or when, in Vonnegutese, one’s “peephole” unceremoniously opens and finally closes) but it observes a curious (not to say rare) ambivalence about all the stuff in between times. We live our lives, so Rudolph Waltz, the protagonist, believes, and then we get to The End, which may or may not (though probably not) coincide with death. When it doesn’t, we just live out the Epilogue, those pointless bits of life after we’ve done all we’re ever going to do and before the peephole is finally, irrevocably closed. For some, that epilogue lasts longer than others. For Rudy, who has declared himself a neuter, a man without feeling or belief or commitment or love, it encompasses pretty much all of his life, from the moment when, as a twelve year old, he shot and killed Eloise Metzger, a pregnant woman, while she was vacuuming her living room on Mothers’ Day. And there we have it!

Vonnegut wouldn’t be Vonnegut without the establishment managing to make a complete hash of daily life, and so it is here, when a neutron bomb is accidentally dropped on Rudy’s home town in mid-west America, obliterating 100,000 innocent souls but conveniently leaving the town’s infrastructure largely intact. The police, those footsoldiers of authority, are painted in hypocritical glory, responding to the accidental violence that killed Mrs Metzger with some shocking, pre-meditated violence against the unwitting perpetrator. Parents too, those first symbols of authority that any recalcitrant child has to deal with, are presented in all their Vonnegutian dysfunction. Rudy’s father, a failed artist, struck up a close friendship with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s, before the latter’s rise to power, and maintained links even afterwards, flying a Nazi flag from the house and displaying a painting by the Fuhrer above the fireplace. And it is his father’s carelessness, hubris even, that leads to the accident in which Rudoph shoots the unfortunate Mrs Metzger. Both of Rudy’s parents subsequently fall into indolence and treat their son as little more than a domestic servant, cooking and cleaning up after them while they sit and do nothing all day. Here we are then: they fuck you up, your mum and dad. And all old people. And all people with vested interests. And those with all the answers. And those with all the plans.

I do have a feeling that Vonnegut is going to stand the test of time. That’s not to say that in the next twenty years or so his standing won’t fall, because experience tells us that this is almost a given. Whither our Faulkners and our Greenes today? No, I suspect he’ll soon come to be dismissed as a 1960s Age of Aquarius hippy, all anti-establishment posturing and ‘reject authority’ proselytising and high principled idealism: ironically, the master of the caricature will come to be caricatured. But then will come a reassessment and we will see that the characteristic cartoon two-dimensionality that he created actually conceals a beautiful subtlety of thought; and, precisely because he does not strain to emote or labour a point or convert his reader, he manages to create a more lasting impression than the earnest drear-merchants who currently lap up the plaudits. Deadeye Dick is not a work of genius, but it is written by a man who was clearly capable of it. In life, what appears glib may often have greater weight. So it is here. So it goes.

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