A Series of Accidents is an ongoing project about the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can read previous entries here.
In the chronology of Vonnegut novels, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, sits nestled uncomfortably between the author’s two most famous works, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s an odd novel, odd in the way Vonnegut’s always are but also in a different way. The story is halting and circuitous, but it contains some of his best quotes and most explicit political commentary. It’s perhaps more in line with the short fiction Vonnegut cranked out for magazines in the 1950s (more on that in the next entry) than his more science-fictional novels.
The plot, to the extent there is one, concerns the eponymous Eliot Rosewater, the sole heir of the wealthy Rosewater family. In an apparent break with sanity, he moves to a small Indiana town of the same name and becomes a kind of local patron, dispensing money, services, and companionship to any townspeople who want it. This leads the various other people involved with the Rosewater fortune to become quite alarmed, and for one, Norman Mushari, to launch a plot to have Eliot declared legally insane and his distant cousin Fred made inheritor.
This storyline, however, is less of a propulsive corporate thriller and more of a coatrack upon which Vonnegut can hang various satirical vignettes about American life. The narrative wanders from the perspective of Rosewater to those of various town residents, then to Fred Rosewater in Rhode Island, then to his wife, to her friend, to her daughter, and so on and so forth. The actual conflict is largely contained within the last fifteen pages or so of the novel.
The main theme connecting all of these episodes is the concept of class, and how Americans make sense of the fact that they do or do not have money. Vonnegut had been on all sides of the class system: born into a well-off German-American architect’s family that experienced steep decline, having worked in the archetypical white-collar world of General Electric, and now being a near-poverty writer trying to support six children on dismal sales. There’s an unmistakable anger and frustration in the way that God Bless You depicts class in America, and it perhaps reflects the nadir that the author found himself at.
No social class comes off particularly well in God Bless You. The poor of Rosewater (the town) are generally ignorant and talentless – they are every bit the “useless people” they are accused of being. They are mostly placid, easily fascinated by tabloids and mass media. The Rhode Island chapters reveal the banality and sterility of middle class hypocrisy. But Vonnegut saves most of his ire for the rich, the elite families and foundations which make up the shadowy nobility of America.
Throughout the novel we see the various ideological justifications which the rich use to justify having so much money while others have so little. The Rosewater patriarch starts his fortune “in order not to be victimized”, feeling himself persecuted on all sides from the government and individuals. Later, when Mr. Buntline comes into a large sum of money and wants to give it all away, his estate lawyers administer “prophylaxis”, telling him that the government and charity are too ineffectual to administer his money, and that he might as well enjoy his good fortune. The rich also pretend to cultural literacy – in one telling scene, it’s revealed that Mrs. Buntline has been playing her Beethoven records at 78 rpm, or double speed, and not noticing. It’s easy to see in these self-justifications the seed of the wealth-obsessed neoconservatism, or “samaritophobia” to use Vonnegut’s pretend-clinical term that would soon grip the country.
God Bless You is perhaps most notable as the first appearance of Kilgore Trout. Trout is a fictitious science-fiction author, perhaps the way Vonnegut thought of himself, or feared others would think of him. Trout’s seemingly endless oeuvre of novels are considered by everyone within Vonnegut’s world to be cheap pulp, but are frequently described in a few paragraphs, conjuring up paradoxical and satirical universes. None of the Trout novels described seem to have much of a plot or characters: they seem like ideas that Vonnegut thought were clever but couldn’t turn into a short story or novel.
I suspect that Trout was, for Vonnegut, a way of commenting on his own use of science fiction tropes. His own work had frequently been distributed and marketed as pulpy science fiction once it failed to sell as literature. This happened most notably for Player Piano, which sold much better as a cheap paperback called Utopia 22 – in God Bless You, we have the plot of Player Piano summarized and attributed to Trout.
One of the defining traits of postmodernism was the elevation of what was considered low or popular culture to a position of prominence. Vonnegut’s use of Trout certainly fits into this paradigm. Throughout his body of work, Vonnegut suggests that the most important, imaginative and poignant works might be found in the cheap paperbacks at the back of a sleazy adult bookstore. Again, when he writes about Trout he is also writing about himself, trying to make a case for his own literary significance despite the space aliens and apocalypses in his plots, and the relative obscurity of his output. Vonnegut loved using science-fictional devices, but hated being thought of as a sci-fi author, and this tension perhaps results in the person of Kilgore Trout.
God Bless You features Trout not just through the description of his books, as in other novels, but as a character. He arrives at the end, when Eliot is confined to a mental ward, and helps devise a solution to the knot which Rosewater (and, by extension, the novel) has found itself in. This is not deus ex machina but auctor ex machina, with the writer himself sending in his surrogate to bring a close to the narrative he doesn’t quite know how to end.
In the end, Trout conjures a properly Biblical ending, convincing Eliot to become the legal father of the newborn children of Rosewater county. This is a kind of reverse revolution, in which the nobility is not destroyed but negated by including all of the common people into its patrilineal inheritance. It is, perhaps, a resolution that only a pulp fantasist could imagine.
The shaggy-dog storyline of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater gives Vonnegut plenty of time to return to his thematic obsessions. There’s once again an invented religion and a text-within-the-text. There’s another pitiable Nazi, Lincoln Ewald, a Rosewater resident who Eliot provides charity to. The overarching question of the narrative, how “useless people” should be cared for, recurs from Player Piano.
There’s also room for references to, and perhaps shots at, Vonnegut’s literary contemporaries. Among the residents of Rosewater, Indiana is a “fourteen-year-old nymphet, pregnant by her stepfather”, which perhaps makes my Lolita/Mother Night comparison from a few months ago less of a stretch. Elsewhere, thirteen-year-old Lila Buntline sells copies of Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch to her schoolmates who are interested in the smutty parts, perhaps suggesting Vonnegut’s opinion of Beat and counterculture literature.
But the most important reoccuring theme here is the one that was still haunting the author from twenty years ago – his experience in World War II, particularly his presence as a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden. Eliot is traumatized by an experience where he was forced to kill firemen in Bavaria, thus motivating him to become a volunteer firefighter, and then a volunteer everything, among his return to Bavaria. Eliot, like Vonnegut, has his trauma only reinforced by the fact that so many of his countrymen returned from history’s biggest war with no apparent ill effects or regrets – one doctor describes him as the “only American who has so far noticed the Second World War.”
Eliot also develops an erotic attraction to the bombing of Dresden itself. Towards the end of the novel, when he has a psychotic break with reality, he hallucinates this destruction being visited upon the city of Indianapolis, a Vonnegutian fantasy if there ever was one. We can see here the outlines of the author’s harrowing experience and most important theme present here, but masked and jumbled up as if in a dream. He was close to being able to write about what he had experienced directly, but he wasn’t quite there yet.
That sense of being not quite there is present throughout God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It’s not quite a novel, not quite a political statement, not quite a satire, by a man who may have felt he was not quite an author. Perhaps the sometimes-brilliant muddle of God Bless You was a necessary struggle for Vonnegut to get through. What emerged on the other side would be the book that changed his life, and perhaps American literature, forever. But for us chronological readers, we still have one more mixture to wade through.
The next entry will be on Vonnegut’s first widely-available short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. I’m hoping that the time frame of “next month” will be a bit more accurate this time. So it goes.