Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird (A)

When I read Sirens of Titan several years ago, I likened Vonnegut's phrasing to the dropping singular bricks of prose from great height. Such were the little texticules, delivered concisely and distantly for maximum effect. Later, when I read Cat's Cradle, I remarked that he'd moved up to whole paragraphs and pages, each section mounted like an absurdist gem for optimal appreciation, and as the reader strolls though the museum, a floor plan gradually gets revealed. By the time he wrote Jailbird, he moved up to the level of entire story.

There's something about Vonnegut's structure that really grabbed me here, and more completely than before. There is a plot progression in the book but the conclusion is telegraphed early and foregone. The interest arises as the details and the backstory get revealed as the plot slowly gets along. This in itself isn't unusual--lots of authors work in the gradually-filled-in-outline mode--but Vonnegut has transcended the form. He's written a novel that is completely self-similar in form. Each of the large parts of the heirarchy has the same shape as the smaller parts below it. The absurdist style helps. The whole story is a finely crafted irony of a man who drifts from power to contempt with no special skills or culpability or qualifications. The subplots of individual characters are fine synecdoches of this larger arc, the ironies that a friendless old man manages to collect reflect it, and even on the word and sentence level, through clever repetition and juxtaposition, Vonnegut loses none of this punch. He manages to place the whole scope of the book in periodic triple claps that break unwanted into quiet meditations. On top of all this, he manages to deliver the thing in an even comfortable tone of a genial old fart unwinding a long anecdote. I'd never quite grasped Vonnegut's ability as pure storyteller, but it was relentless here. Peace.

I suppose it also helped that he's not, in Jailbird taking on life, the universe, and everything. It's both easier and more ambitious to poke at god, or at the futility of it all. Here he instead takes on the corporate world, painting the proles as sympathetic buffoons, and the managers likewise, just buffoons who've wandered into power. He drops in plenty of references that were probably hard-hitting in 1979, when Watergate was fresh enough, but as I live through the most absurd time in my memory, I can't help but wish he'd written it in 2006.


(Next is cynical blasphemy week, I'm just in that sort of mood. I've got Towing Jehovah on deck, in which the corpse of God must be disposed. I plan to follow up with Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth which I've never gotten around to finishing. Other suggestions are welcome.)


twiffer said...

cool, no spoilers on this on.

went on a vonnegut kick years ago and read, well, nearly all his novels. don't quite recall jailbird, but you've tempted me to pick it up again (provided i own it [i might], otherwise, a trip to the used book store!)

but yes, life these days is rather absurd.

Keifus said...

I don't know if it's Vonnegut's evolution as a writer or something I noticed only gradually (I picked up Sirens of Titan seven or eight years ago), but his tone is positively warm in this one. I liked that, and as I said, it seemed to hit on all the levels I could see.

K (Sorry about the spoilers in teh previous entry. With the author leaving the thing off with such a powerful wtf moment, my thoughts went mostly toward puzzling it out.)

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