Monday, December 19, 2011


I've probably said it before but it bears saying again. While Kurt Vonnegut is best known as an author of unusual, satirical science fiction, some of his best work takes place in the real world, or at least something very close to resembling it. Jailbird proves this once again, and after I found his previous book to be underwhelming, it was nice to read another great Vonnegut novel again. He was getting older at this point, which is reflected in the story's main character, a man in his sixties who's seen the world change a lot over time and has stopped taking it entirely seriously. Jailbird reads more like a fictional autobiography or memoir rather than a traditional novel, and has the protagonist telling the story of his first couple days of freedom after being jailed for two years for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, though it's fairly rambling, covering at different points many different periods in his earlier life and also obliquely referring to his state at the time of the writing a few years later. There's also a very long prologue (it is literally more than 10% of the book's text) written from Vonnegut's own perspective which mentions things that inspired pieces of the story and also expands on some fictional events that are referred to but left unexplained in the main text.

So there's the typical Vonnegut playfullness in the writing, and the topics he decided to brood on here are pretty expected as well. He talks pretty harshly about the history of the treatment of certain American citizens, from laborers who wanted to start unions to communists who were persecuted by the government after the war. He weaves the different characters into the fabric of America from the 30s to the 70s, as the protagonist goes from a reluctant Harvard man to a successful bureaucrat during World War II to an unemployed loser to a forgotten small part of the Nixon administration before his eventual incarceration. The RAMJAC corporation is a creation of Vonnegut that pops up repeatedly and proves essential to both the plot and his most biting condemnation in the book, giving not just corporations but our entire economic system a pretty thorough lashing. For all of it's preaching though it wouldn't be a very enjoyable book without his trademark oddness and sense of humor, and luckily both are also fully intact here. As he gets older he seems more willing to touch on taboo subjects, and some of the laughs in Jailbird are as strange and biting as they've ever been. It's not quite one of the best books he's written, but it's certainly right up there with other great things he's done.

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