Chris J. Shields’s biography And So It Goes – Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is a deep look into the incredible life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. By incredible, I don’t necessarily mean great, good, or terrible. I mean Kurt experienced a lot, both good and bad, and approached life valiantly while notably having his own shortcomings. I had known he was a POW during WWII and was held in Dresden when the city was destroyed. This much is mentioned many times in discussions, intros, and summaries of his novels (especially Slaughterhouse Five). Much of what he wrote about does go back to his experiences during that time. There are snippets of Vonnegut’s personal life in his novels but more so on their jackets, so some of the major events within this book (i.e. of his life) were known ahead of time, but what was offered in those snippets were unfocused facts and this biography gives them clarity.
Reading more about Vonnegut gives a different perspective for his novels. Certain things seem more personal, or significant, than they had been previously. Much of what he covers in various stories seem sourced directly from his life. Many of his short stories were written earlier in his career, and many of his novels written later with the exception of his more popular books. For example, his first book Player Piano was published in 1952, then Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), then his fifth and most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five released in 1969. He wrote a total of 14 books and many other articles, short stories, essays, speeches, etc. all the way up until his death in 2007 with several publications being posthumous including an in-progress novel he had been working on.
The world Vonnegut was born into in 1922 was completely different than the one we know today 100 years later (perhaps it is by more than chance I’ve come to Vonnegut at this century marker). The world we know today is already completely different than the one he died in back in 2007. The world is ever changing while human societies seem to change at a much slower rate. There is a quote from Vonnegut in this book that goes something like “take the world seriously, but none of the people in it.” I think that is sound advice.
Vonnegut was a prolific writer who enjoyed much of the fame he had heaped upon him in his later years, and he enjoyed most of this fame while disliking some of it. The Vonnegut many readers imagine in their minds, derived simply from his books, is quite different from the man who wrote those books. Not having known him myself, I rely on this biography and other anecdotes I’ve read by others to build a better picture of the man himself. This biography does a phenomenal job and may be the most extensive record we have of his life, but an entire life is ~425 pages is still a small window.
Vonnegut was no doubt a great writer, but he was an absent father and poor husband. He was married to Jane for 34 years and likely would not have become the writer he was without her support and without her taking on the role of singular parent to six children. Granted, Kurt took in three nephews when his sister and brother-in-law died tragically within days of each other. Much of what Kurt did was aimed with good intentions except of course his infidelities which lead to the eventual end of his first marriage. His second marriage seemed almost to include a little karma for his shortcomings in his first. I’m not one to judge solely from one perspective, but I believe Chris J. Shields did a phenomenal job presenting the facts of Vonnegut’s life and had the extensive research notes to support them. Essentially, Kurt’s second wife was an apathetic, overly-ambitious bitch who treated him poorly especially at the end of his life.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had a long, incredible life rife with blessings and curses. He wrote stories that bombed and stories that were immensely successful. He remains a prominent author today and is read widely, and I think as a society we still don’t know how best to categorize his work. He “began” his career being placed in science fiction due to the use of some themes of that genre. Later, he was deemed “black humor” and of course each book has its own elements that would sway things one way or another. I think his work has come into its own and is simply referred to by his name. Vonnegut is Vonnegut whatever that means for each of us.
I for one have come to enjoy Vonnegut’s work and will continue to read through his novels (and likely re-read a few I hadn’t fully appreciated early on). Knowing more about him as a person, I likely will read his books with a little more insight and understanding. I think anyone who is a fan of Vonnegut should read this book to better understand who he was as it differed in many ways from what is gleaned from his novels.