If you're surprised that Kurt Vonnegut was an unhappy man, you're not paying attention. But the response to And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields's Vonnegut biography, indicates that a whole lot of people don't want to remember the author that way. Critics of the book—including Vonnegut's son, Mark, in an e-mail to science fiction blog io9.com—claim that Shields had access to Vonnegut only at the very end of his life, when he was, in his son's estimation, "a much diminished 84-year-old." Shields's portrayal of Vonnegut as a depressed and bitter person who was obsessed with his public perception is unfair, Mark continues, asking, "Why don't people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to."
Those are serious charges to levy against a biographer. And it feels like an over-the-top assault against Shields, who with And So It Goes has assembled a thorough, if workmanlike, biography of Vonnegut—the first serious attempt at a complete life story of the man since his death in 2007. (One other thick book on Vonnegut was published this fall, too; Gregory D. Sumner's Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels is less research-heavy than Shields's book, instead opting for biographical details interspersed with close readings of each of Vonnegut's books. Unfortunately, Sumner's interpretations are so profoundly uninteresting that they undermine whatever else he has to say: The Sirens of Titan, it seems, "can be read as a hero's journey in the mythic tradition identified by Joseph Campbell." Unless third-rate literary criticism is your bag, it's best to stick with the Shields book.)
This is not to say that Shields's portrait is flattering. Vonnegut holds grudges, his heart breaks when bad reviews of his books are published, and his personal life is a wreck, fraught with the kind of painful, un-self-aware dramas that would only be acceptable if they were committed by a college freshman. Sometimes the smallness intoxicates the biographer and foils his better judgment: Shields underplays the single most important moment of Vonnegut's life—his survival in captivity at the firebombing of Dresden during World War II—and basically applies equal weight to a detailed description of one of Vonnegut's extramarital affairs.
Maybe, in the end, it's impossible to write a very good biography of Kurt Vonnegut because Vonnegut's books already serve as one huge biography. In his nonfiction essay collage Palm Sunday, Vonnegut portrays his life—the horrors of war, the indignity of divorce, the petty joys of becoming a middle-aged countercultural mascot—in all its gaudy glory. In his fiction (even the fiction in which he does not make a personal appearance), Vonnegut tells and retells his life story to himself in a desperate attempt to apply some sort of meaning to the universe. Shields and Sumner can't tell us—we can never know—if Vonnegut achieved some measure of success at finding that meaning.
Early in his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem revels in Vonnegut's "bitter rejoinder" to a critic. (He doesn't note that like Vonnegut's best bitter remarks, the rejoinder is also humorous and self-effacing: "I'm completely in print, so we're all stuck with me and stuck with my books.") In the telling, Lethem notes that Palm Sunday's subtitle, An Autobiographical Collage, is "perhaps not too terrible a name for what I'm doing here."
Though Lethem's style is decidedly more formal than Vonnegut's, Influence feels like an intimate self-portrait. He shares some of his favorite things: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the television work of Ernie Kovacs, the paintings of Fred Tomaselli, Nathanael West's novels, discarded superhero concepts like Ragman and Omega the Unknown, great movie sex scenes. Elsewhere, he effuses over plagiarism and pop culture.
If you've read a fair amount of Lethem's work, you'll find echoes of his fiction here. (This is, it should be said, not a book for Lethem novices; but then, Palm Sunday wasn't a book for people who'd never read Vonnegut, either.) And there are some of the same maddening obsessions as in his novels, too—his adoring profiles of musicians, including Bob Dylan, James Brown (who "seems to have finished devouring the whole prospect of me by the time our brief handshake is concluded"), and Otis Redding, and other flights of nostalgia can cause an exasperated reader to wonder if Lethem likes anything made in this millennium.
His most faithful readers will wish Lethem had experimented a little further with the structure of Ecstasy. Since his most recent major work is the triumph of his voracious, monolithic novel Chronic City, a book which consumed its own acknowledgements and made them part of the narrative, the essays in Ecstasy feel strangely small when placed, as they are, separately from one another. For someone who favors the idea of tearing text from the bounds of authorship, he displays a frustrating unwillingness to brutalize his own old words into something new.
One of the themes that Lethem addresses again and again in Influence is his love of Philip K. Dick, whose science fiction novels he has "taken... into my body like wine and wafer." Here's Lethem on his tattoo of a spray can of Ubik, the strange, reality-warping product that features prominently in Dick's novel of the same name:
In two decades I've watched my spray can swell, shrink, and grow slack with the changing contours of my arm, gain hairs, survive mosquito bites. The simple colors haven't faded badly, but the blue outline has blurred, victim of the entropy the spray-product Ubik was supposed to combat. Dick ensured Ubik's immortality; I've ensured its mortality.
Lethem has contributed to Dick's immortality in many ways, most notably by editing the Library of America collections of his work. His most recent homage as co-editor is a brand-new collection titled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. Dick fans have long salivated over the idea of the Exegesis and ascribed to it a certain kind of holiness. The story behind the book is that one day in 1974, after becoming fixated on a delivery girl's Christian fish necklace, Dick's brain opened up into a kind of fugue state in which the truths behind all the mysteries of the universe were revealed to him. He spent the next eight years trying to write out the wisdom that was imparted to him in that and other revelatory moments.
With Pamela Jackson, Lethem has been charged with editing the work (found in letters and files scattered around Dick's California apartment after his death) into book form. The design of the book is gorgeous—the cover itself is gold, and the dust jacket, which evokes the fish necklace, along with the rainbow sheen of a bubble just about to burst, assures the reader that a serious kind of holiness sprawls within. At more than 900 pages, Exegesis is rife with annotations from experts in philosophy, religion, and literature. You could hardly imagine a more noble treatment for a writer who never once felt the glow of critical appreciation in his lifetime.
It's a shame then that the book is more or less a flood of babble. Dick's religious experience—some have called it an undiagnosed stroke—may have filled his head with concepts, but it surely didn't bless him with coherence. What we see instead is a jumble of Christian, historical, and Parmenidean thought. He interprets wisdom from his own dreams, theorizes that he has received signals from outer space, and imagines the substance of Christ's body as "yogurt." While teenagers will covet the Exegesis the way they do other nonsense writings—the Necronomicon, say, or the poetry of Jim Morrison—the Exegesis is the siren call of a broken mind trying to figure out how it got that way. Philip K. Dick did leave an intelligent and comprehensive explication of the universe as he saw it, but the Exegesis is not it: Like the best writers, his interpretation of the meaning of life can be found in his novels.