06 July 2008

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Armageddon in Retrospect could be seen as a shout from the grave, a humanist’s last call from the afterlife, if Vonnegut hadn’t already played out that trope in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by doing interviews with the dead for his local NPR station. Instead, it is merely another installment in his long line of story collections. And from Welcome to the Monkey House and Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons through the recently-collected magazine stories in Bagombo Snuffbox, Vonnegut’s short work has been consistent in its quality.

Unlike all of Vonnegut’s prior collections, though, these stories have never been published before. As noted above, they all exhibit Vonnegut’s careful high polish, so perhaps their common theme is what kept them in his desk drawer.

As the title suggests, these pieces are all about the end of the world. For Vonnegut, this was World War II, in which he fought, and during which he survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. He struggled with what he saw for years, until finally decanting it as Slaughterhouse-5, but we never really saw this struggle in print until now.

The pieces in Armageddon are undated, except for Vonnegut’s letter home from a Red Cross camp once the war ended and the speech he was preparing when he died, so we can’t attribute them to a particular period in his career. “Guns before Butter” and The Commandant’s Desk”, however, stand up well with the best of his previously published short pieces-- this is not simply mining the files of a dead icon for easy money, but a unified collection of highly personal material. And as his son Mark says in the introduction, “(e)ven if the content of any given piece isn’t interesting to you, look at the structure and rhythm and choices of words. If you can’t learn about reading and writing from Kurt, maybe you should be doing something else.”

As an added bonus, the book is illustrated with prints from Vonnegut’s post-novelist career as a graphic artist.