Collecting one of Vonnegut’s earliest works, ‘Basic Training’ (first released as a Kindle one shot back in 2012), with If God Were Alive Today, the unfinished novel that turned out to be his last work, is the premise of We Are What We Pretend To Be.
‘Basic Training’, the longest of the two pieces herein, was written in the 1940s and lacks the snappy zazz and flavour you get from vintage Vonnegut. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad story (it isn’t) and more to say that, whereas vintage Vonnegut sounds like Vonnegut and no-one else, ‘Basic Training’ could be a Glass period story by Salinger or even Faulkner juvenilia. We are in the company of a young man called Hayley who fancies himself as a concert pianist in waiting but who has been forced, due to the death of his adoptive parents, to up sticks and move to the country under the jurisdiction of his late mother’s brother, a comical tyrant called the General who runs a farm in the company of his three daughters (only one of whom ever really does what she’s told) and a paranoid help called Banghart who is given to brandishing a knife and muttering about the various revenges he would like to enact upon those who have stood in his way. Pretty much from day one, Haley is a disaster zone – he helps one of the General’s daughters to elope with someone inappropriate and then drives a cart into the General’s car, his pride and joy – but he has a shot at eventual redemption that reads a little like a Charles Portis concoction. It may be that there is no Roberto Bolano-esque bottom drawer filled with manuscripts that have yet to see the light of day. If that’s the case, then ‘Basic Training’ will do in the absence of anything else Vonnegut shaped. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of If God Were Alive Today.
Now, before we get briefly into it, I should say that between 1997 – when Timequake was issued – and his death in 2007, I must’ve Googled (or the then equivalent) VONNEGUT NEW BOOK approximately ten million times. This is not untypical behaviour for me. I’m given to Googling the names of authors and NEW BOOK relatively, worryingly, frequently. When If God Were Alive popped up on the radar (which I think it did around 2005), I was somewhat excited. My search data changed from VONNEGUT NEW BOOK to VONNEGUT IF GOD WERE ALIVE PUB DATE. Sadly, as we know, the book was never finished. There is, I think, a further tier of complication. The small fragment of the novel available to us feels jumbled – something Vonnegut may have sorted in the redrafting – but it also feels lacklustre, as if his heart wasn’t in it. Was the book abandoned? We’ll never know. As it is, we have 6 chapters of gradually diminishing length, concerning a stand-up comedian called Gill Berman whose family have been plagued by suicides and who has suffered a couple of breakdowns himself, breakdowns that may have been chemically derived. We glimpse a few Berman routines, occupy a Q&A with a temporary psychiatrist, hop, skip and jump through Berman’s past (and the past of his parents) and are introduced to a stalker who thinks Berman may be the son of God. Nanette Vonnegut, who pens the intro to the book, says, ‘Gil Berman was conceived and born out of the toxic circumstances of my father’s life at the time.’ Coming as it does, relatively hard on the heels of Charles Shields’ biography And So It Goes (which reveals Vonnegut to be something of a difficult individual, at odds with the popular fan view), Berman lines like:
‘Listen: If there was ever a man who should never have been a husband, that’s me. If there was ever a man who should never have been a father, that’s me. If there was ever a man who should never have been alive, that’s the booze-hound and coke-head who’s here tonight…’
have bitter connotations. It’s a sad read, all told, an ugly full stop, not a book that sends you dusting down your favourite Vonneguts from the shelf for a re-read. What If God Were Alive does is make you feel like you’ve had a fall-out with Vonnegut. You know the damage isn’t irreparable. You’ll talk again. You just need time to forget the experience. Put it behind you. As with so many recently published unfinished books, it does the author no service at all. Which is a tremendous shame.
Any Cop?: All Vonnegut fans should read ‘Basic Training’ because it’s interesting as a piece of juvenilia. All Vonnegut fans will more than likely want to read If God Were Alive too (I know I would if I hadn’t read it). Which makes We Are What We Pretend To Be very much a game of two halves.