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Jonathan Elmer

They Are Not Needed: Vonnegut and the Uselessness of Art | Elmer on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Jonathan Elmer   In my last installment, on Cat’s Cradle, I suggested that Vonnegut was playing some interesting games with his literary precursors, especially Melville’s epic whaling tale, Moby-Dick. That mythic beast makes a cameo appearance in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as well. The scene is “The Jolly Whaler,” the shop run by Bunny Weeks, “the great-grandson of the …

Apocalypse Then | Elmer on Cat’s Cradle

Jonathan Elmer   Although it takes him six novels—until Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)—to directly confront his personal trauma of surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, all of Vonnegut’s early work seems simultaneously to approach, and retreat from, the cataclysm of the Second World War. Maybe “directly” is not the right word, even for the apparently autobiographical Slaughterhouse; but certainly before Slaughterhouse, Vonnegut …

Becoming Completely Yourself | Elmer on Mother Night

Jonathan Elmer   Howard W. Campbell Jr. is a playwright and a spy. What is the relation between the two? At the level of narrative, the relation is as intimate as can be. When Frank Wirtanen approaches Campbell about spying for the Americans, he indicates that he fixed on Campbell because of the “medieval romances” he writes: “you love pure …

The Fast Reverse | Elmer on The Sirens of Titan

Jonathan Elmer     “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.” “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole.” Taken together, these two sentences—the first is the opening line of The Sirens of Titan (1959); the second comes from an interview in 1977—capture a style of assertion, unique to Vonnegut, that veers wildly from pontification …

Angry Sordid Present | Elmer on Player Piano

Jonathan Elmer   An insurrection erupts, and is crushed. We are in the years following World War III, and the United States has emerged victorious again. Player Piano is set, more or less, in our present time (Vonnegut tells us that “the characters are modeled after persons as yet unborn, or, perhaps, at this writing”—1952—“infants”). Of course, there has not yet …