We Are What We Pretend to Be

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Vanguard
  • 176 pp.

In two novellas that bookend the writer’s career, the styles are dramatically different but the themes resonate as strongly as ever.

Reviewed by Fred Haefele

We Are What We Pretend to Be pairs an unlikely combination of previously unpublished Vonnegut novellas. I say “unlikely” because they come from the opposite ends of his career, but mostly because it’s hard to believe they were written by the same guy.

Training Day, a coming-of-age story and one of Vonnegut’s earliest efforts, seems remarkable only in the sense that it gives little indication of the direction Vonnegut’s work would take thereafter. If God Were Alive Today, the second piece and Vonnegut’s final work, is a full-on tirade of such manic indignation and gloom that after reading it, some readers may find they need a drink.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this beloved, crazy uncle of a writer. Of course, his fans number in the millions, but for people like me who came of age during the height of his powers, books such as Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five formed the core of our generation’s literary canon. His ability to combine an urgent sense of compassion with a uniquely upbeat, pitch-black humor seemed almost godlike. Toss in his bittersweet, chain-smoking persona, and it seemed impossible to entertain writerly ambitions without somehow being influenced by him.

Vonnegut’s books were hilarious, smart-ass yet visionary, often containing genre-busting, intergalactic excursions to other worlds: the planet Tralfamadore, for example, whose inhabitants resemble plumbers’ helpers and manage to exist in four separate dimensions at once. At his best, Vonnegut was a true virtuoso of the absurd, and in the final innings of the late, great 20th century, we were never more in need of such a writer.

It’s been a while since I’ve read him, so to refresh my memory I chose God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one of my favorites, which I last read in the 1960s. As it turned out, not only did it contain some of my favorite Vonnegut lines, but the main character — the rich, gifted and deranged philanthropist Elliot Rosewater — turns out to bear a striking resemblance to Gil Berman, the rich, talented and deranged mad-dog shock-comic and hero of If God Were Alive Today. Rosewater undergoes treatment for his chronic indifference to a great family’s noblesse oblige; Berman undergoes treatment for a similar dysfunction. Both men are a species of eunuchs — for Rosewater, it’s mainly lack of interest; in Berman’s case, he’s simply sworn off sex, as he has cocaine, booze and pills.

Forty years apart, both books share Vonnegut’s disdain for the American upper class, which he finds never more inept and offensive then when they try to be civic-minded and do good. Both books share a conviction that any realized compassion for less fortunate Americans is sure to be branded as subversion, plain craziness or both. They share a disquieting kind of love-hate relationship with the arts. Mostly, they share Vonnegut’s conviction that anyone inheriting a vast sum of money will be relentlessly, and perhaps justifiably, destroyed by it.

But for all these similarities, what’s gone missing in If God Were Alive Today is Vonnegut’s patience and sense of pacing. While God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater unfolds like a meandering trout stream, the 70 pages that comprise If God Were Alive Today rush pell-mell, like rapids before the falls. The narrative, a particularly complex back story interspersed with splinters from Berman’s amped-up comedy routine, moves ahead with such velocity we have little time to process it — like trying to run a 100-yard dash while eating a submarine sandwich.

It’s easy to imagine that Vonnegut believed he was running out of time. As an artist and concerned, card-carrying member of the human race, the half-century of “greed, avarice, stupidity and cruelty” he so closely observed has done nothing but redouble its influence, while our prospects for survival continue to dwindle.

In his earlier work, Vonnegut was gentler with the reader, offering a cushion of whimsy to dampen the hard truths about humanity. But throughout If God Were Alive Today, Berman’s character stays close to the hot rail; whether he’s outrageous on stage with his public or in a quiet session with his shrink, that kind of cushion is nowhere handy. On nearly every page he batters issues that include the methodical gutting of our public schools, the logic-defying theories of creationists and, of course, the unconscionable excesses of the rich — all issues that we know by now vitriol alone can’t fix. When the rant goes over the top, it feels one-dimensional and exhausted, making me miss the wise Tralfamadoreans and their exquisite, four-dimensional way of seeing things.

As a fan, it was interesting to see the radical departure he makes from the quotidian American fiction of Training Day to work of the magnitude of Slaughterhouse Five. In his final departure, too, it was interesting to see a very good writer abandon his forbearance. But it doesn’t make me miss any less the Vonnegut of my youth, whose work the passage of time has rendered more relevant than ever.

Fred Haefeles writings have appeared in Epoch, Missouri Review, Prism International, Outside, New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, Wired, Big Sky Journal, Newsday, American Heritage and others. He is the author of the award-winning memoir Rebuilding the Indian and the recently published Extremeophilia.Visit his website at fredhaefele.com.

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