Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels

D. Sumner Gregory

Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels
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Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels

D. Sumner Gregory

‘A wonderful primer to Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Every page brims with analytic insight, biographical revelation, and old-fashioned storytelling.’ - Douglas Brinkley Gregory Sumner guides us through Vonnegut’s best known works, his fourteen novels starting with Player Piano, including the iconic Slaughterhouse Five, and all the way to an epilogue on his last book, A Man Without a Country, to illustrate the quintessential American writer’s profound engagement with the ‘American Dream’. Vonnegut’s novels reflect his own resistance to celebrating the traditional values associated with the American Dream: grandiose ambition, unbridled material success, rugged individualism, and ‘winners’ over ‘losers.’ We share his outrage, his brokenhearted empathy for those who struggle under the ethos of survival-of-the-fittest in the frontier mentality - something he once memorably described as ‘an impossibly tough-minded experiment in loneliness’. Unstuck in Time reveals another sort of human utopia, an alternative American Dream characterised by small acts of kindness, friendship, and love. This is delightful, essential reading for those who remain enchanted by one of the giants of C20th American fiction.

Review

gregory-sumner-revCult novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions made Kurt Vonnegut one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century. His peculiar blend of science fiction, satire and black comedy was a godsend for countless American readers in a time of television, growing technological automation and war.

Gregory D. Sumner, a history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, has taken Vonnegut’s 14 published novels and used them as foundation stones to write the literary biography Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.

Sumner goes novel-by-novel through fourteen detailed chapters, assessing the developments in Kurt Vonnegut’s life and writing to create what is as much a summary of Vonnegut’s work as it is a biography of his life.

Sumner’s introductory writing in Unstuck in Time is excellent: he manages to historically locate Vonnegut in his American twentieth-century upbringing – his years as a child during the Great Depression, as a World War II soldier, as a cadet journalist and science student – with a vividness that allows one to see the historical relevance in Vonnegut’s later creative choices.

(What made him different from most writers he knew, Vonnegut once quipped, was that he knew how his refrigerator worked.)

But as the book goes on, it quickly becomes apparent that Sumner’s work is little more than a composite of uncritical summaries and biographical anecdotes about a writer he deeply admires. For any Vonnegut fan looking for new biographical information about the great American writer, this is not the book for you. With its 14 unenterprising plot summaries, Unstuck in Time is at best a compendium for Vonnegut readers in need of a refresher course.


steve-bid-brown-smSteve Bidwell-Brown is a bookseller at Readings Carlton. He has previously worked as a literary events coordinator for novelists and poets, as a carnie in a travelling circus, and as a semi-professional cricketer in the UK. He likes being able to read and write.

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