Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Jailbird (1979)
Never trust a true return to form. This was his best novel since Slaughterhouse Five according to a couple of the reviews quoted in the opening pages, presumably in the same way of Bowie's Black Tie White Noise having been a true return to form by virtue of having been marginally less shit than its predecessor.

When Vonnegut fails, it's usually been because he buries whatever the fuck the book was trying to do under a spaghetti mound of absurdist interconnected asides which begin to irritate once you realise that you've forgotten what was supposed to be happening beneath all of those tangents. When he succeeds, that's when the tangents work, and when it feels like there's some point to our having vanished down yet another rabbit hole. Whilst Jailbird doesn't quite belong to the first group, it's unusually sober for Vonnegut, lacking much of his characteristic humour, and thus similarly becomes a bit of a slog, albeit for different reasons.

It's a shame because I'm more than on board for what Jailbird wants to do, but actually reading and digesting the thing makes it difficult. It's the fictitious but plausible account of a well-intentioned stooge caught up in Watergate and subsequently incarcerated, and all loosely spun around a fictional historical massacre of unionised workers in exploring just why America regards compassion as a sign of either weakness or communism.

If this were done as a modern Passion Play, the actors playing the authorities, the Pontius Pilates, would still have to express scorn for the opinions of the mob. But they would be in favour rather than against the death penalty this time.

And they would never wash their hands.

The point is well made, and of course it's a point which particularly needs making at the moment, but there's a lot of other stuff to wade through. Jailbird is better than the barely readable ones, but feels a little too joyless for its own good.

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