Tuesday, 24 May 2016

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1985)
I've just noticed how my favourite Vonnegut is the first one I read and I've enjoyed each successive title a little less than its predecessor, which seems unfortunate and is probably more to do with my noticing a pattern than whatever qualities the books may have. The pattern I've noticed is how we're introduced to a character - let's call him Gary for the sake of argument - and then we have a few pages of Gary pottering about in the tool shed; he picks up a spanner which was given to him by his father, so we have a few pages about Gary's father, famed inventor of something we'll call the Splunge, then we see Gary's father getting into a Splunge-related argument with Doris at the patent office, then how Doris always wanted to write poetry but was dissuaded from doing so by her dentist, then cut to the guy who would be well and truly screwed if there was a Splunge in every home...

Vonnegut always seems to meander in this way - at least based on those I've read - and whilst it can be entertaining in isolation, it's begun to irritate me after six or seven novels. It may allow for some pleasantly amusing digressions but can distract one from getting to grips with the point of the book. I actually read the first sixty pages of this and then started again, having realised I was lost and with no idea of who these people were supposed to be. As formulas go, it's nothing like so irritating as Douglas Adams, but it gets in the way a bit. Vonnegut being Vonnegut, the material strung along this meandering train of thought is generally wonderful, but keeping track of it can be a pain in the arse. His stories rely on cause and effect more than those foggy narratives from which an impression is all you really need - as with William Burroughs - so when the story is obscured by its own telling, there's a problem.

This is a shame because God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is otherwise a great book, so far as I can see. The Mr. Rosewater of the title is one of America's richest men but is painfully aware of his privilege, and takes greater pleasure from work as a volunteer fire fighter. This distinguishes him as clinically insane in the eyes of those for whom wealth is an end in itself, specifically those with a vested interest in Mr. Rosewater behaving according to his fortune. This has quite some resonance for me as relative by marriage to a Texas oil tycoon who himself prefers the company of hillbillies and was once a volunteer fireman.

What gets me most about these people, Daddy, isn't how ignorant they are, or how much they drink. It's the way they have of thinking that everything nice in the world is a gift to the poor people from them or their ancestors. The first afternoon I was here, Mrs. Buntline made me come out on the back porch and look at the sunset. So I did, and I said I liked it very much, but she kept waiting for me to say something else. I couldn't think of what else I was supposed to say, so I said what seemed like a dumb thing. 'Thank you very much,' I said. That was exactly what she was waiting for. 'You're entirely welcome,' she said. I have since thanked her for the ocean, the moon, the stars in the sky, and the United States Constitution.

I read that passage out loud to my wife and she immediately knew who I'd been reminded of. Anyway, the novel is a fairly straightforward argument against the dehumanising influence of excessive wonga.

'No more apologies! So we're poor! All right, we're poor! This is America! And America is one place in this sorry world where people shouldn't have to apologise for being poor. The question in America should be, 'Is this guy a good citizen? Is he honest? Does he pull his own weight?' '

It's a good argument and it's well stated in entertaining terms, with some pleasantly ludicrous asides to the work of the Vonnegut's fictitious science-fiction author, Kilgore Trout; but at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I just think the whole thing could have been tighter.

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