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Apocalypse Then: Armageddon In Retrospect, Reviewed

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Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

Listen:
Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
2008
Kurt Vonnegut
Introduction by Mark Vonnegut
Putnam
 
 

“And I thank you for your attention, and I’m out of here.”
 
 

Mark Vonnegut observes that the closing words of the last speech his father wrote were “as good a way as any for him to say good-bye.” The speech, along with the letter Kurt wrote to his parents during WWII to inform them that he’d been taken a prisoner of war in Germany, a collection of artwork and sketches, and twelve never-before-published works are included in Armageddon In Retrospect; a treasure trove for Vonnegut fans not quite ready to say good-bye yet. Mark Vonnegut opens the book with an introduction filled with insights and anecdotes about the father who would become a famous author, eventually:
 
 

“Now, for most people looking back, Kurt’s being a successful, even famous, writer is an “of course” kind of thing. For me it looks like something that very easily might not have happened.
He often said he had to be a writer because he wasn’t good at anything else. He was not good at being an employee. Back in the mid-1950’s, he was employed by Sports Illustrated
 

, briefly. He reported to work, was asked to write a short piece on a racehorse that had jumped over a fence and tried to run away. Kurt stared at the blank piece of paper all morning and then typed, ‘The horse jumped over the fucking fence,’ and walked out, self-employed again.”
And so on.
 

 
“I screamed and I wept and I clawed the walls of our shelter,” an old lady told me. “I prayed to God to ‘please, please, please, dear God, stop them.’ But he didn’t hear me.” From
 

 

Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”
The main feature of Armageddon in Retrospect is a series of twelve previously unpublished pieces on the subjects of war and peace. In A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut talked about the many unsuccessful attempts he made to write about his experiences in World War II before completing Slaughterhouse-Five. It would be fair to assume that several of the writings included in Armageddon in Retrospect are the result of these attempts; whether or not the pieces are unsuccessful is a subject of greater debate. While most lack Vonnegut’s sardonic smirk (the author’s signature style is detected only in the final piece, which shares its title with the book), their blunt, shocking manner is apt testament to the horrors of war. The heart-rending descriptions of World War II, in particular the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces, provide a first-person account of historical events that are so often depersonalized – or in the case of the attack on Dresden, forgotten – in textbooks.
Listen: The twelve short subjects may not showcase Vonnegut at his finest Vonnegut, but this is not a shortcoming. The pieces can be thought of as relics of the process: Watching the author handle a common theme in different ways provides a glimpse into the mind of a master at work; something a fan, a reader, or a writer can certainly appreciate. The series as a whole is a sort of Making of a Laughing Prophet of Doom. The matter-of-fact accounts of Vonnegut’s experiences make him seem more human and more extraordinary at the same time.
Look: Armageddon in Retrospect is not about that one, extraordinary, how-did-they-miss-this piece. Those looking to learn something new from Kurt will be disappointed. Those looking to learn something new about Kurt will not. Armageddon in Retrospect is a book that is much more about Kurt Vonnegut than his topics.

If that isn’t nice, what is?

 

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