William Deresiewicz rereads the first seven novels.
“The cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac,” Hanif Kureishi has a character say in The Buddha of Suburbia, “is reread him at thirty-eight.” If that was true, I wondered as I opened the first two volumes of the Library of America’s ongoing series of the complete novels, then what of Vonnegut at a decade older still? The two are linked, of course, as items on the syllabus of adolescent male samizdat that used to go like this: Mad magazine at 13, Vonnegut at 15, Salinger at 17, Hunter Thompson at 18, Kerouac at 20. (When you got real big, you read Kundera.)
Well, if I’ve grown older and more respectable, then so has Kurt Vonnegut. Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? They were part of the mystique. Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance? There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted. “It was about firing a spaceship with a warhead full of jizzum at Andromeda.” But never mind; the words cast their spell, the layout is forgotten and Kureishi’s question is answered. No, not cruel. Some of them are worse than I remembered, but some of them are even better.