A Series of Accidents #18

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Content warning for mention of suicide and other depressing things.

Fates Worse Than Death was Vonnegut’s third non-fiction collection, and it’s clear that by this point he’d figured out the way he wanted to do them. This book takes roughly the same “autobiographical collage” approach as Palm Sunday, with new prose used to string together previously-written material. The material is the same array of nonfiction genres: speeches to the American Psychiatric Association, essays on Jackson Pollock, articles for Architectural Digest, and satirical apologies to the Reagan-era commission on obscenity.

Vonnegut was undoubtedly a skilled essayist, able to inject his own personality and concerns into seemingly any task or occasion. Of course, if one is reading Vonnegut exhaustively as I have over the past few years, it starts to all run together, with the same ideas and sometimes even the same phrases popping up gain and again. It’s the gift of the successful writer, I suppose, to have more opportunities to write than things to say. But there’s still a lot of value in this collection.

The collection captures much of Vonnegut’s nonfiction work from the 80s, when the author was entering into old age, and his thoughts seem to frequently drift to death and, relatedly, religion. Many of the speeches in this and Vonnegut’s previous nonfiction books are given at religious occasions, often at a Unitarian church. Vonnegut took religion seriously in the way that only an atheist can. Despite being a nonbeliever, he seems to afford a great deal of respect to faith, even going so far as to wish he had it.

One section chronicles Vonnegut’s attendance at a requiem composed and written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which he finds vulgarized and distasteful, taking it on himself tot produce his own requiem just in case any Christians feel like using it. Elsewhere, he describes his frustration that a seemingly liberal church wouldn’t allow his largely liberal second marriage ceremony to Jill Krementz. Vonnegut felt a kind of yearning to be prat of a religious community even as his intellect would never allow him to be a true believer. Both of his wives refer to him as a “spiritual cripple” for this reason.

Of course, it would be hard for religion to be far from anyone’s mind in Reagan’s America, where a right-wing theocratic version of Christian morality leavened with free-market economics motivated the ruling party. This included a number of attempts to ban offensive material from libraries, schools, and other familiar avenues. Vonnegut frequently spoke against such censorship, citing attempts to ban subversion under the heading of “pornography” and recognizing censorship as a “social disease” which must the eradicated. Sadly, this is a disease we’ve still yet to develop a cure for.

Throughout the collection here’s an acknowledgement that Vonnegut’s political interventions are increasingly fruitless. He gives a speech at the Air and Space Museum about Dresden and the folly of “precision bombing”, and is followed later on in the program by Curtis LeMay. He travels to war-torn Mozambique in the vein of his earlier journalistic article about Biafra, but admits that he is no longer able to access the same sense of trauma.

As his writing gets closer to the present Vonnegut comes to seem more and more contemporary in this combination of outrage and exhaustion. He writes about the oncoming climate crisis, noting that an appropriate epitaph for the Earth would be “We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”, a sentiment that could easily be found in the latest (accurate) doomsaying by Bill McKibben or Rebecca Solnit. Hell, they might put it in the next IPCC report.

But it’s not just planetary crises that trouble Vonnegut in Fates Worse Than Death. As the author firmly enters old age, more and more of his friends and loved ones pass away, including his first wife Jane. In some ways, the collection presents Vonnegut’s life as one long collage of deaths, way back from his mother’s suicide to the present.

So, with God nowhere to be found, the world going to hell in a right-wing handbasket, and memories of loss all around him, it’s perhaps not that surprising that Vonnegut’s work in the 1980s reads so depressive. It wasn’t literary affectation, either. Vonnegut attempted suicide through pills, and had to be resuscitated at the hospital in the late 1980s. All of the brilliant ways in which Vonnegut wrote about depression and trauma, and the lucrative lifestlye he had obtained doing so, still didn’t seem to give him protection against the worse sort of mental illness.

This suicide attempt is the great absence in Fates Worse Than Death. Vonnegut does mention it, but mostly as a joke, as if he had fallen down an open manhole. He quickly moves on to an essay written about the tendency of humourists to become “intolerably unfunny pessimists.” Perhaps that was how Vonnegut saw his own arc: as someone whose ability to use humour to cope with the tragedy of life was gradually abandoning him, leaving him only a miserable curmudgeon.

Despite this, there are moments of hope sprinkled throughout Fates Worse Than Death. Vonnegut is still a believer in the American values of freedom and democracy, even if he feels the country fails to live up to them. “Do Not Be Cynical About the American Experiment, Since It Has Only Now Begun”, he tells a graduating class, in the declarative capitals of an eighteenth-century novelist. Perhaps, in the next generation, or in some kind of religious epiphany, there was hope to turn the course of history around.

And even if there was nothing to be done, a running theme throughout the book is that giving up is perhaps not the worst things to happen to a person. In a sermon that gives the book his titles, he ironically suggests that nuclear weapons are necessary to prevent “fates worse than death” such as defeat and humiliation, with the clear implication that in reality, even the most catastrophic defeat would be less awful than the cataclysm of a nuclear war. Instead, Vonnegut suggests that we must at times be willing to surrender and say “Nothing is lost save honor”, which would later become the title of another book.

And thus Vonnegut finds a kind of hope in defeat: in having failed to meaningfully change the world through art, he was now free o embrace he pleasures of life, of spending time with family, of continuing to read and write and hold forth on any topic that struck his mind. He lived another decade and a half after his suicide attempt. Nothing was lost save honor.

The next entry will deal with Vonnegut’s final novel, Timequake, coming… sometime in 2023.