Review of Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
One of the central conceits of Jailbird is that the RAMJAC corporation seems to own everything, and it is owned by Mrs. Jack Graham, a reclusive woman whom few people have met in person and who gives orders by telephone, confirming them by mailing a letter to her subordinates signed by fingerprints from both hands. That’s weird, right?
Problem is, this is a Vonnegut novel, so it’s not nearly weird enough.
Walter F. Starbuck is a Harvard man, a minor public servant who does time in a white-collar prison for tangential involvement in Watergate. The story begins with Walter’s release; most of his earlier life is told as a series of flashbacks, with Walter meditating upon and foreshadowing various formative events. Having lived through much of the twentieth century, Walter is the world-weary proxy for the author, able to use his decades of experience in the public service to demonstrate how, no matter what happens, this is life. So it goes, eh? As the story goes on, Vonnegut introduces any number of improbably named supporting cast members, dipping into their lives to various degrees, and connecting them in ways both unlikely and realistically serendipitous.
In these respects, Jailbird is typical Vonnegut fare, and for the first half or so, I was quite enjoying it. Despite the setbacks dealt to him, Walter was remarkably mellow. He goes through his life almost as if he can’t believe anyone is bothering to interact with him. So many protagonists of stories are heroes: they are often the most important or become one of the most important people in the story’s setting. Vonnegut seems to have set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to tell a good story about someone who isn’t a hero, isn’t an antihero, isn’t anything. He’s just some guy, you know? He hasn’t made much of a big difference doing anything in his life. But he’s OK with that.
Somewhere towards the back half, though, I began to check out. The novel starts to take weird twists and the plot begins to spiral outwards at an accelerated pace rather than in the tight, constant coils of the earlier part of the book. I wasn’t sure what was going on—but in the head-scratching, unable to enjoy myself kind of way, as opposed to the usual Escher-like constructions Vonnegut springs upon the reader.
Some of this is a personal issue: I’m just not that interested in Watergate or its fallout. It’s difficult for me, as a child of this era, to relate to that particular part of the twentieth century. I feel strange saying that, because I have no problem enjoying the myriad stories set in World War II, which is surely a world much more different from mine than America during Watergate. But I studied World War II in school, and its presence in our culture far overshadows that of Watergate. Moreover, in today’s accelerated news cycle coupled with unprecedented access to information, it seems like a new scandal rears its head every second day. Keeping up with the illegal activities President of the United States and his advisers was exciting in the 1970s. Now it’s just another exhausting facet of your unpaid Internet labour.
Another disappointment peculiar to my tastes and preferences is the dearth of science fictional elements. That’s not an automatic failure—Bluebeard similarly lacks science fiction, and I still loved it. No, just my mood in general at the time was hoping for more zany and unforgettable pulp sci-fi on the order of The Sirens of Titan. Oh well.
I will say this: I like the subtle way in which Vonnegut critiques both capitalism and communism here. Whenever we discuss critiques of communism in fiction, Orwell always dominates. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm as much as the next self-respecting English student, and Orwell’s corpus of anti-authoritarianist literature is amazing. Yet there is so much more to be said and so many other people saying it.
Latent in Jailbird seems to be the premise that World War II really fucked everything up in terms of capitalism versus communism in a way that few people anticipated. Though its cost in terms of lives was staggering and atrocious, it did jumpstart the economies of Europe and America, even as it triggered the long slide of Russian communism towards its eventual collapse. But the social changes that accompanied the absence of young men from the workforce and the general fatigue with fighting that followed the war really altered the way in which people thought about work and acquiring profit.
(Oh, and having the ability to destroy all life on the planet with a few bombs also changed things.)
Vonnegut is clever in the way he connects the Watergate-era politics of Walter’s career with Walter’s earlier efforts in post-war Germany. He illustrates how the decisions made following the war have influenced the rise of various corporate interests, a process that has continued towards a concerning climax in my time. The RAMJAC corporation lurks in the background of the first part of Jailbird: it keeps coming up, but no one ever discusses what it is or why it seems to own everything. (And I like at the end how Vonnegut reveals that it doesn’t actually own that much—perception can be far more powerful than fact.) That RAMJAC is more of a trojan horse than anything is fun, though I wish Vonnegut had played with the idea more instead of just stating it flat out towards the end.
I’m happy I read Jailbird, and I wouldn’t rule out revisiting it at some point in the future—I might like it better then! That being said, there are plenty of other Vonnegut novels to read, or ones I’d rather re-read first, so that won’t be a priority. It just lacks the volume of satire and humour I want from my Vonnegut, preferring instead elements of pure farce, which don’t satisfy me quite so much. Though still eminently Vonnegut in voice and style, it is not the an exemplar of his work.