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May 15, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | May 15, 2008 |

When Kurt Vonnegut died a year ago at the age of 84, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century was lost. And, while it was sad to see him go, we can at least return to works like Slaughterhouse Five and Cats Cradle and remember the Vonnegut that was.

But, if you’d like to remember the Vonnegut that was, perhaps you shouldn’t read Armageddon in Retrospect. This collection of 12 previously unpublished pieces doesn’t provide a Vonnegut at the top of his game — and that’s probably why he didn’t publish them. Many of the themes and issues present in Armageddon in Retrospect are developed better in his previously published works, although, to be fair, a few pieces felt totally new and were worth the read.

The opening piece is a letter from the young Vonnegut to his family after his release from a German POW camp in May 1945. (This period, especially the fire bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut survived, figures greatly in many of the pieces featured in Armageddon in Retrospect.) Vonnegut’s trademark wit is apparent from the letter’s opening and continues as he relates the numerous indignities he suffered under the Germans.

This letter, one of Vonnegut’s first written pieces, is followed immediately by one of his last, a speech he was to deliver in April of last year, a speech meant to kick off Indiana’s “year of Kurt Vonnegut.” Unfortunately, Vonnegut died shortly before the event, and his son Mark delivered the speech in his place. (Mark also wrote the introduction to Armageddon.) Vonnegut’s final speech tackles topics both trivial (he advises writers to avoid semicolons, which are “transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college) and significant (that life is about helping “each other get through this thing, whatever it is”).

This speech is followed by several pieces that are a direct reflection of Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” is Vonnegut’s contemplation on the beauty that was Dresden as well as the horror that it became. “Guns Before Butter” tells of starving POWs who dream of food, constantly revising the first meal they will eat upon their return to America. “Brighten Up” relates the tale of a group of American POWs, one of whom is “a dissipated little weasel” who collaborates with his captors to make a quick buck at the expense of his fellow Americans.

Not all stories in Armageddon in Retrospect are about war, however. “The Unicorn Trap” tells of a poor family of serfs living at the time of the Norman Conquest and how their foolish hopes have unexpected results. “Unknown Soldier” relates the sad, short life of the first infant born into the new millennium.

The final story is the strongest; “Armageddon in Retrospect” discusses the nature of evil and the possibility that we can ever be rid of it. A group of scientists believe, much to the mirth of the scientific community, that the Devil himself is to blame for contemporary problems. Believing they have found the answer to all of humanity’s troubles, they plan to destroy the Devil using a combination of electricity and psychotherapy. Can we ever truly rid ourselves of evil? Anyone familiar with Vonnegut’s pessimism can probably predict the answer.

Of all the pieces contained in Armageddon in Retrospect, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” and “Armageddon in Retrospect” were the most powerful. Regarding those pieces which were not as strong, Mark Vonnegut advises us to “look at the structure and rhythm and choice of words. If you can’t learn about reading and writing from Kurt, maybe you should be doing something else.” So perhaps even the weaker pieces have their merit, especially for Vonnegut aficionados.

However, if you haven’t read anything by Vonnegut, don’t start here; you’ll be disappointed and will perhaps write off one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century. However, for die-hard Vonnegut fans, Armageddon in Retrospect is a must, even if it’s not on par with his seminal works.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

"If You Can Do a Half-Assed Job of Anything, You're a One-Eyed Man in a Kingdom of the Blind"

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut / Jennifer McKeown

Books | May 15, 2008 |

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