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September 23, 1979 - Image 13

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The Michigan Daily, 1979-09-23
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Page 6--Sunday, September 23, 1979-The Michigan Daily

The Michigan Daily-Sunday, Se

Another tale offools and failure

Red carpet

By Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte Press, $9.95
described his works as "bitter
coatings on very sweet pills."
The assessment seems accurate for all
of his works through Slaughterhouse
Five, a novel which beneath its bitter
coating - the bombing of Dresden, the
pitifulness of its hero-- had a sweet
core: The possibility of salvation via
babies and timelessness and a certain
sort of love. Vonnegut's work has
matured since that excellent, if pink-
cheeked, book, and his latest offering,
Jailbird, is a pill of a more homogenous
composition, with an emphasis on the
sour, if not the bitter. But some of the
sweetness lingers, mostly in small
graces and good jokes: The bits of
everyday poetry Vonnegut has always
The book tells the life story of Walter
Starbuck, protege of a reluctant
American industrialist. Raised from a
low station in life, he is sent to Harvard
(extolling that institution occupies a
large part of the book) and becomes a
government hack, holding positions in
Europe and America. Starbuck
becomes an aide in the Nixon White
House, plays an unwitting role in
Watergate, goes to prison, gets
released, becomes an officer in an
enormous conglomerate, and is sent to
prison by yet another scandal.
Given the haphazard nature of a lot of
recent fiction, Jailbird comes off as a
fairly unified book. Vonnegut is dealing
with his favorite theme: Failure. The
protagonists of his last three books
(Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater, Paul
Proteus, et. al.), are incontestable
failures, having managed at best to
snatch some modest form of grace from
practical defeat. The graceful people in
Vonnegut rarely "win" (or "succeed"),
and the winners are never graceful; the
powerful are sometimes villains, more
often fools. In Jailbird, the winners find
among their number Nixon, Roy Cohn,
and various robber barons. The object
of one of Nixon's sharper wisecracks,
Starbuck comments, "Perhaps that is
my proper placeinhistory - as the butt
of the one good joke by Nixon."
Vonnegut's books are peppered with
glib little gags of this kind. The author
has often likened his fiction to a series
of jokes, such as those told by a stand-
up comic. Are these little maxims to be
taken as punchlines? They fly like flags
over the story of Jailbird, (e.g.,
"America could be paradise, if only all
high posts in government were filled by
Harvard men"). They often seem to be
morals as well as punchlines, but it's
difficult to decide whether they are in-
tended to convey any useful infor-
mation. The success orsfailure of
Jailbird, and of Vonnegut's other post-
Slaughterhouse Five efforts - Break-
fast of Champions and Slapstick -
depends heavily upon that issue. Is such
a simplistic, naive, sour style viable?
Vonnegut's style may be termed the
language of American failure. Matter-
of-fact -generalizations on the order of
"Prosperity is just around the corner"
are doused with pessimism and black
Andrew Kurtzinan is a senior
Honors English major. - -

By Andrew Kurtzman
"Sacco and Vanzeti returned to in this respect, but it has large im-
Massachusetts after the war, fast plications for his fiction. If his simple
friends. Their sort of common sense, telegraphic style is a way of making the
holy or not, and based on books paradox of American life clear, the
unreasonableness of human nature
Harrard men read routinely and plain, then he succeeds without making
withou t ill effects, had alwa.s plain why life does indeed seem logical
seemed contemptible to most of their for most Americans. Their loves or
"'Jailbird" does not
relegate its author to utter
pessimism for the rest of
his days, but it does rep-
resent a gap in his under-
standing of the American

sacred than men," in the words of Star-
buck, who admits, "I still believe that
about women..,. all seemed more vir-
tuous, braver about life, closer to the
secrets of the universe than I could be."
This appears truein Vonnegut's work in
general - women seem to live more
gracefully within the paradoxes,
though they are no less a part of them.
They are graceful and courteous,
usually, and it is these virtues that
Vonnegut admires most. His heroes are
true heroes in that they usually possess
a high degree of composure when being
made the butts of cruel jokes by fate.
Vonnegut is awfully sloppy in much of
the dialogue he writes for his charac-
ters, male or female. Starbucks' nor-
mally reserved wife says things like,
"You might just see it again at the next
full mooooooooooooooon," and the
characters say pretty much what the
author wishes them to say, often un-
characteristically. But his narrative is
well-constructed, and for all its faults,
Jailbird is a fine and thoughtful book
about the problems of high power and
American society, and cruelty in the
name of foolish adages.
There are many points where the
book becomes funny, appealing, and
wise; as when Vonnegut encounters his
father in Heaven in the book's preface,
only to discover that he's chosen (one of
the benefits of Heaven) to be nine years
old for all eternity. Vonnegut has
chosen to be forty-four. He is forced to
watch his father's underwear bein
stolen. There is much ingenuity in Von-
negut's fancies, but a good deal of in-
dulgence, too. Often they outlive their
Jailbird does not relegate its author
to utter pessimism for the rest of his
days, but it does represent a gap in his
understanding of the American con-
dition. There are wonderful ideas in the
book, and no one excels Vonnegut at
creating a seedy pageant of parody.
The problem of lovelessness remains,
but not necessarily forever. In the wor-
ds of Vonnegut's protagonist, "I still
believe peace and plenty and happiness
can be worked out in some way. I am a

welcome as
Steinem meets
Alice Lloyd
By Elizabeth Slowik*

neighbors. Those same neighbors,
and those who liked to guide their
destinies without much opposition,
now decided to be terrified hb that
common sense, especially when it
was possessed byi the foreign-born."
Vonnegut purposely reduces the com-
plexities of history to such simple
equations. He does so to make a larger
point: That the human race is capable
of belief in almost any credo, so long as
it makes the basic meaninglessness of
the universe easier to accept. But it
seems that Vonnegut creates poor fools,
not villains, to support this. His charac-
ters strive desperately after nothing at
all under a pretty name, doing large
amounts of damage along the way. His
protagonists are the sole exception.
They are disillusioned, somewhat self-
effacing, and for the most part robotic.
In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut
speaks incessantly of human behavior
as chemically determined - we are all
robots, in effect. In Jailbird Starbuck
comments of his youth: "I was a robot
programmed to behave like a genuine
aristocrat. Oh, to be young again!"
ONNEGUT IS not always suc-
cessful in evoking the paradoxes
of the human condition in all
their magnitude. Part of the problem
may be his attitude toward love. In
Slapstick, Vonnegut states that he can-
not distinguish between his love for a
dog and his feelings for a human, and
that, "Perhaps because I was so per-
petually intoxicated and instructed by
Laurel and Hardy during my childhood
in the Great Depression, I find it
natural to discuss life -without ever
mentioning love."
-Vonnegut is quick -o admit'hisfailing-

pursuits, no matter how foolish, do lend
direction and shape to their existence.
In Vonnegut's heroes, we have one
disconnected balloon of a man after
another whining for courtesy rather
than love, begging for common sense.
His catch phrases are coats-of-arms for
those who have relinquished any hope
for meaning: "So it goes," "Hi-ho,"
"It's alright." Vonnegut clearly
presents a case for his theory that our
hearts, not our heads, are what so often
do us damage, but is silent on the issue
of the nature of our hearts.
Women are "more spiritual, more

tended a reception at Alice
Lloyd's Red Carpet lounge
after her recent speech at
Hill Auditorium, the students flocked
around her, eyes shining, minds
clicking in a whirr you could almost
hear. They surrounded the wood table
where the feminist leader perched:
Seated on the table behind her,
sprawled over the couch next to her,
precariously wobbling on chairs and
shelves, standing, standing, shifting
from one foot to the other as they"
strained forward to hear glorious
Gloria speak.
"I feel like a disciple kneeling at your
feet," said one young woman as she set-
tled herself cross-legged on the floor.
"Don't say that. It makes me up-
tight," replied Steinem.
And uptight is an adjective that does
not apply to Gloria Steinem. Admit-
tedly obsessed with journalism and
feminism, Steinem has combined her.
monomanias into a dynamic career and
a personal credo. "I can't watch a TV
movie without throwing a shoe at sexist
and racist remarks," she said.'
Steinem -is thin, long-haired, and still
sports those famous aviator-style
glassed. Frequently she waves her han-
ds to emphasize a point. Behind the
glasses her eyes are doused in make-
up, but not to hide wrinkles - at 45,
Steinem looks like the older sister of a
typical University freshperson.
Steinem left Toledo, Ohio (where
"the boys got construction jobs in the
summer and made a lot of money and
girls were secretaries") and splashed
into journalism in 1963 with "A Bunny's
Tale." The article, which appeared in
Show magazine, was an account of
Steinem's undercover adventures up
through the ranks of Hugh Hefner's
Playboy bunnies. Leonard Levitt wrote
in a 1971 Esquire magazine profile,
"Gloria revealed that the girls in the
cloakroom did not get to keep their tips,
that the hours were excruciatingly
long, and the pay .embarrassingly
short. Her point of view, however, was
more like that of a labor leader than a
Women's Liberator ..."
Steinem admits that she didn't
recognize herself as a feminist until she
was past 30. "It happened
gradually ... finding it was most im-
portant to me to be 'described as a
feminist, that I was speaking for my
group" instead of "working on someone
else's cause." Several times she
delighted in her youthful audience, ex-
claiming she was encouraged to see the
Elizabeth Slowik is co-editor of

students had become feminists so early
in life.
At Alice Lloyd, Steinem fielded
questions with consistent ease that
ranged from whether she has children
to the difference between humanism
and feminism. In between, she gave
advice to a lesbian who wanted to tell
her co-workers about her sexual
preference. Virtually everyone in the
audience, mostly Alice Lloyd residents
and Pilot Program students and staff,
claimed to be a feminist; with
Steinem's incisive replies, who would
declare otherwise?
Not all feminists revere Steinem as
the students in thelounge so obviously
did. Some charge that Steinem has sold
out-as editor of Ms. magazine, she
makes a tidy income each year and
enjoys influence and power with politi-
cans, publishers, and the public that few
in her field have attained. They say she
has left a hole in the galaxy of feminist
leaders. But Steinem points to the new,
non-profit status of Ms., making it part
of the Ms. Foundation, as evidence that
her critics are an example of "the crabs
in the basket phenomenon, where one
person of your group goes up and the
others try to pull you down."
With its altered tax status, Ms. will
distribute some issues free or at a
discount, and its writers will be able to

pursue additional investigative ar-
ticles. Ms. now can continue on a dif-
ferent plane. "We no longer have to
prove discrimination," Steinem ex-
plained. "Our audience changes all the.
time. People read intensively for two
years" then move onto their own brand
of feminism. "We publish things no
other magazine does," boasted
B UT STE INEM'S 'griting
talent has been criticized as
much as her alleged oppor-
tunistic exploitation of the
women's movement. "... . Editors who
have handled her copy say that if she
believes that her writing alone made
her famous, she may be deluding her-
self about her prose and her charm,"
Levitt asserted in Esquire.
In the September 1979 issue of Ms.,
which was devoted to campus
coverage, Steinem said she believes


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Kurt Vonnegut

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