With Charles Shield’s new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes, being reviewed all over town, I keep seeing the cartoon Vonnegut head. With each successive viewing, which is of course reminiscent of Vonnegut cartoon head encounters of the past, I become more and more convinced of the appropriateness of the image. Vonnegut has cartoon qualities: the downtrodden acceptance of fate, his unavoidable sentimentality, his common way of speaking for the utilization of common sense. Vonnegut was a bit of a goofnut. But I also see, in the vast proliferation of his image as cartoon, just a sliver of animosity. A certain satisfaction in our ability to put Vonnegut in his place—as a caricature.
One of the major concerns of Shield’s biography is to address the contradictions between Vonnegut’s image and how he was in real life (what pretty all biographies set out to explore, right?), but also to bring to light just how in control of his image Vonnegut really was. Not that Vonnegut was merely playing the fool in order to endear himself to an audience, but that he actively pursued an image that would sell. Which doesn’t fit all that snugly with the image of the good-hearted, simple-minded goofnut.
I’ve always been rather protective of authors’ private lives. I’m inclined not to care about the person but to behold their work. Yet with someone like Vonnegut, whose presence was so adamantly inserted into the page, distinctions between narrator and author, character and autobiography, blur. Should we be alarmed? Do we now have to question the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five as insincere?
Before such madness unfurls us, let me propose something. Reading Vonnegut had an extraordinarily positive effect on me as a teenager. Here was an author ready to tell you the true stupid shit about human beings but who still asks you to be decent. Vonnegut, as simple-seeming as he may have been, attained a kind of nobility to aspire to. As much as the true man may have failed in coinciding with his ideal image, isn’t it still significant that he sought out attempts at decency?