‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time’ – a heartfelt tribute to the legendary author

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 25 July 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

‘So it goes’: the laconic refrain from Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is perhaps his most resilient bequest to contemporary culture; an all-purpose aphorism that suits the mood of our dystopian times. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, the famous words are used exclusively as a commentary upon death, signifying a deeply humane recognition of loss, as well as an acceptance that life must end.
 
Naturally, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical account of the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, is central to Robert B Weide’s fantastic documentary, co-directed with Don Argott, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time (selected cinemas and video on demand, 22 July). 
 
It charts Weide’s 25-year friendship with the author, which began with a letter in 1982, tentatively exploring the potential for a regular biographical movie, and ended in 2007 with Vonnegut’s death at the age of 84. It has taken Weide another decade-and-a-half to finish the film and to set it free to do its work on-screen.
 
Weide establishes that three moments above all others formed Vonnegut as an author, traumatising him deeply but also releasing the twin muses of sadness and playfulness that shape his writing. The first was the suicide on Mother’s Day 1944, of his mother, Edith – a melancholic woman from a wealthy background who had never recovered from the family’s exile from high society in Indianapolis after its finances collapsed in 1929. The second was Dresden, which inspired the strange tale of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five – a novel that clearly served as a coping mechanism, a means of confronting the intolerable memory of witnessing the smoking ruins of the German city after a firebombing that had claimed 135,000 lives. ‘Only one person benefited,’ he later reflected, with typical gallows humour. ‘Me. I got several dollars for each person killed. Imagine.’

The third trauma was the death from cancer of his beloved sister Alice in 1958 – only two days after her husband James had been killed in a train accident. Without a second thought, Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, took in and raised Alice’s four sons – in addition to their own three children.
 
While, by and large, Vonnegut did not make it through the checkpoint of the millennium quite as easily as other literary science-fiction writers like Philip K Dick and JG Ballard, or the other great post-war chroniclers of Americana, John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, what Weide’s documentary also shows is how vividly relevant the author’s ideas remain – and how he was more of a prophet than is widely recognised.
 
On automation, for instance, Vonnegut spotted, after his years working for General Electric, precisely what was coming; on climate change and the environment, Vonnegut was miles ahead of the pack and spoke at the first Earth Day in 1970; perhaps most piercingly, Vonnegut foresaw the tenacity and durable menace of the totalitarian, fascistic mentality. One longs to know what he would have made of the Trumpian era, of the age of post-truth and of the hellish cuckoo clocks that are tweeting all around us in 2022. 
 
In Weide’s documentary, Vonnegut has been given the best possible chance of cultural reclamation: an introduction to a new generation of a masterly body of work. Considered together, his books are a tragicomic country of reckless, indomitable laughter; made gravelly in his case by a lifetime chain-smoking Pall Malls. 
 
At the borders of that country, you can certainly hear the scream of despair – the scream of Dresden – but the laughter is rich and its stockade resilient. Now more than ever, we need to read the man from Indiana and to embrace his raucous irony afresh.
 
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Watch


The Newsreader (BBC Two, 24 July; all episodes on iPlayer)
Anna Torv’s performance as psychology professor Wendy Carr is one of the many reasons that the FBI drama Mindhunter deserves a third season. In this award-winning Australian series, set in 1986, she is no less impressive as Helen Norville, a news anchor struggling to maintain her journalistic integrity and pursue her ambition in an overtly sexist workplace. Paired up with junior reporter Dale Jennings (Sam Reid), she covers the great stories of the era – the Challenger disaster; Chernobyl; the return of Halley’s comet; and the bombing of the Russell Street police headquarters in Melbourne. But, as one would expect from a writer as celebrated as Michael Lucas, the plotline is not as crass as the newsroom chauvinism – and The Newsreader quickly reveals subtleties, ambiguities and grace notes that will keep you watching. 

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Read


Meantime by Frankie Boyle
‘He radiated the self-consciousness of a first novel, and I guessed he was her boyfriend.’ In a single sentence, Frankie Boyle shows why this is not such another novel-by-a-stand-up-comedian-on-the-telly, and how confidently his familiar, sardonic voice translates from screen and stage to fiction. Billed as ‘Glasgow noir’, Meantime is a tremendous book: a detective story full of twists and turns that is as beautifully written as it is darkly comic.
 
Felix, a former employee of BBC Scotland (which ‘existed almost entirely to stop Scottish programmes from being made’), joins forces with his semi-psychotic neighbour Donnie to find out who killed his friend Marina. Fuelled by valium and ecstasy, they prowl the streets of the city, trying their luck at Scottish independence meetings, a book signing by a crime writer, a GP’s surgery and anywhere else that – however implausibly – might help them in their amateur sleuthing.
 
Not surprisingly, Meantime is very, very funny. But it is also a gripping work of stylised crime fiction that marks, I suspect, a new and exciting chapter in Boyle’s multi-faceted career.


Listen


Yesterday Is Heavy by Lil Silva
More than a decade into his musical career – which began with grime group Macabre Unit – it is odd to describe this as Lil Silva’s debut album: but so, technically, it is. Having worked with first-rank artists such as Banks and Adele, the Bedford producer and songwriter – otherwise known as TJ Carter – stakes his own claim to solo success with 12 tracks of subtle, genre-mixing excellence that set his falsetto against a backdrop of R&B, electro-rave, grime, art pop, and funk. Not surprisingly, the cast list of collaborators is stellar: from serpentwithfeet on ‘Ends Now’ and BadBadNotGood on ‘To The Floor’, to the amazing Sampha on ‘Backwards’ and Ghetts on ‘Still’. But this is indisputably a solo project from an artist of prodigious talent.
 
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
@MatthewdAncona

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