I believe I first learned of Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel from a Rolling Stone interview published a year or so before he died. The interview didn’t say much about the book, simply giving the title and the fact that he had abandoned it. The title was darkly intriguing – If God Were Alive Today – and part of the announcement of its abandonment later became a ‘Vonnegut Quote’:
I’ve given up on it… It won’t happen… The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people’s discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, ‘Please, I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?’ That’s what I feel right now. I’ve written books. Lots of them. Please, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. Can I go home now?
What I call a Vonnegut Quote is an actual quotation or idea that conforms to his modus operandi: black, moralising humour giving social commentary, often from a humanist, socialist or liberal background. Sometimes a particular saying or idea popped up again and again over decades in books, interviews, essays and speeches. Even today his official website offers a selection of Vonnegut Quotes for sale. In a way, towards the end of his life Vonnegut was distilled into these quotes. When he was hired to give a speech, the audience wanted and expected them. He didn’t surprise, and he didn’t disappoint.
Since the death of the great man in 2007, the Vonnegut family has been publishing his rare and unseen work in new volumes about once a year. This year they treated us to We Are What We Pretend To Be, the title of which is itself part of a Vonnegut Quote from his 1961 novel Mother Night.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be.
The book contains his first and last works. Basic Training is a mediocre first unpublished novel that all writers seem to have stuffed in their embarrassment drawer somewhere. If God Were Alive Today is a collection of Vonnegut Quotes, and I mean that literally: the protagonist, comedian Gil Berman, frequently repeats those popular sayings of Vonnegut.
It is an interesting change. Vonnegut was known for inserting himself into his later work. He dabbled with metafiction in Slaughterhouse-Five, used it extensively in Breakfast of Champions, and almost moved into autobiographical essays with his fiction at the end. In this last novel, he abandons writing explicitly about himself, but uses a character to give his distinct views in his distinct voice. It is a shame it was never edited and finished, because I would have loved to see what could have become of this.
The protagonist Gil Berman is supposedly a famous comedian, but he is not funny. His ‘jokes’ are common Vonnegut diatribes against society’s ills – war and pollution and the like. It is a depressing book, and we learn why if we do a bit of research. As his son Mark Vonnegut wrote in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:
It’s common knowledge that Kurt was depressed, but as with a lot things that are common knowledge, there are good reasons to doubt it. He didn’t want to be happy and he said a lot of depressing things, but I honestly don’t think he was ever depressed… It wasn’t until the Iraq War and the end of his life that he became sincerely gloomy.
Vonnegut wrote If God Were Alive Today towards the end of his life, and he was sincerely gloomy. He had worked so hard for all of his life to write something that could make a difference, but he only saw things getting worse.
He felt neglected, too. A few jibes at critics in the novel sound suspiciously autobiographical, and we learn something interesting about the end of his life from Charles Shields’ biography And So It Goes (the title is another Vonnegut Quote, of course). Once when Shields was interviewing him, he asked him to look up ‘Vonnegut, Kurt’ in a dictionary. There was no listing. But there was an entry for ‘Kerouac, Jack.’
This is a book written by an undoubtedly unhappy man. While reading it, a host of words come to mind to describe the author: pessimist, nihilist, cynic. If God Were Alive Today is a crap book as is, but I’m glad I was given the chance to read it to understand a bit better what was going on inside that remarkable head. Also, to be honest, pessimism deserves a voice, too. Vonnegut was famous for the dark humour of his novels. Here we see the end of the man’s life, when the humour fell away and all we are left with was the darkness.