Sunday, February 23, 2014
Humor and humanity
I am not as familiar with Vonnegut as I should be. Before I finished reading Jailbird the only work of his that I'd ever completed was "Harrison Bergeron," which I don't think I've re-read since 2008. My copy of Jailbird has been sitting on a shelf for years, waiting to be read, and I'm happy to have finally gotten to it.
Jailbird is full of wry humor, absurdity, and humanity. The narrator's resignation to his designation as a Harvard Man is pretty much the overarching theme of the novel and it's an attitude that I can get behind. Walter has been made into who he is by orders given by others; the thought those orders would transmute themselves into talismans guiding his life and is disappointed that they never did. It's only once he starts going against orders and purposefully doing the opposite of what he's expected to that he's able to make any good come into the world, and even that good is questionable.
I can't quite decide what is the most obvious target of the book's criticism. Old Boy's Clubs, Unions, Capitalists, the Economy, and the illusion of agency all have Vonnegut's biting humor aimed at them and none of them come out looking great. But at least some concepts are approached with sympathy - the plight of the worker in the modern world is constantly examined and the workers are always empathized with.
The book has been making me think ever since I finished it, which I suppose books are supposed to do, and mostly what I've come away with is a reaffirmed contempt of bureaucracy and a driving need to participate more in my own life. At the very least, if that need to participate isn't possible, easy, or fun, I can sure as hell laugh at the world a little better now.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Jailbird. Dell Books. New York: New York. 1981. OP 1979.