Leeds, Marc. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. Revised and updated ed., Delacorte, 2016.
The novels, plays and short stories of Kurt Vonnegut can be said to constitute a complex, interconnected fictive universe. Characters wander in and out of books as though casually strolling between adjoining rooms, individuals introduced as protagonists in one text will appear, discreetly, on the sidelines of another, locations alluded to in an early novel might become key settings in later works. People, places, and even products conjured from the author’s imagination become recognisable entities whose repeated appearances and vibrant descriptions have granted them a kind of veracity in the minds of readers. At the same time, real events and historical figures mingle with imaginary creations to such an extent that fact and fiction become irrevocably intertwined. Populating his works with recurring characters and references, Vonnegut builds a textual world with its own unique history, logic, and, indeed, its own language. For readers of his work, this engenders a desire to catalogue appearances and events, to collate references in vast indices to rival those of Claire Minton in Cat’s Cradle. However, while we might attempt to navigate the byzantine universe of Vonnegut’s work on our own terms, we are fortunate to have at our disposal a superlative companion text to lead us through this sprawling labyrinth of names, places and recurring themes. For those of us journeying through the rich fictional world of Vonnegut’s extensive literary corpus, the recently-published second edition of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia serves as an indispensable guide to this vibrant realm of inter-related characters, concepts and settings.
A comprehensive A-to-Z directory, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia features detailed entries on Vonnegut’s prolific output, from lauded novels and short stories to lesser-known plays and essays. Indicative of the blending of fiction and reality that defines Vonnegut’s work, the encyclopedia is the work of scholar and founding president of the Kurt Vonnegut Society Marc Leeds, himself a denizen of Vonnegut’s fictive universe, having appeared as a character in the 1997 novel Timequake. Expansive in its scope and meticulous in its attention to detail, the second edition of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia expands on the first, which covered Vonnegut’s work through to 1991, by providing a detailed guide to the author’s work from his early career up until his death in 2007. The encyclopedia is comprised of insightful overviews of Vonnegut’s extensive body of short stories, novels, plays, essay collections, scripts, children’s books, and more. More than that, however, the encyclopedia also charts the complex web of cultural, philosophical and literary paradigms that shaped Vonnegut’s work. Leeds maps out Vonnegut’s fictional universe with such incisive detail that it is possible to vividly imagine where Midland City lies in relation to San Lorenzo or visualise the course of the ill-fated Bahía de Darwin as it sets sail on the “Nature Cruise of the Century.” However, his detailed exploration of the physical world described in Vonnegut’s work is superseded by the meticulous manner in which he uncovers the complex theological, metaphysical and philosophical forces that inform Vonnegut’s writing, weaving together the diverse strains of humanism, altruism, pacifism, and indeed absurdism that constitute the basis of Vonnegut’s broader thematic concerns.
An infinitely textual work, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia is an exhaustive catalogue of themes, characters, language and imagery. Yet, it is also heavily focused on the paratextual, opening with an explanation of the various inscriptions and dedications that have prefaced all of Vonnegut’s publications and highlighting their wider thematic resonance. In this way, Leeds provides us with a reference work that guides us through Vonnegut’s writings from the moment we enter each text through to its final pages. The alphabetical listings that comprise the encyclopedia’s accessible format provide succinct definitions of Vonnegut’s many neologisms, such as “Bokonism,” “foma,” and “granfalloon,” as well as enumerating their appearances across texts. Similarly, Leeds pursues the many recurring phrases and epithets that appear throughout Vonnegut’s work in an attempt to identify their larger thematic and aesthetic significance. For example, the first entry in the encyclopedia is the phrase “2BR02B” (the alphanumeric approximation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). This references the title of a Vonnegut story from 1962 which later reappears as the name of a Kilgore Trout novel mentioned in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Throughout the encyclopedia, Leeds articulates the myriad equally complex connections and intertextual references that define Vonnegut’s fiction, tracing the diverse ways in which ideas and concepts traverse texts and form bridges between seemingly disparate works.
Moreover, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia is not simply an index of references and terms, it is also an incisive, ongoing analysis of Vonnegut’s central thematic preoccupations. Leeds’s carefully-considered entry on Vonnegut’s conception of the afterlife, his oft-referenced “blue tubing” or “blue tunnel,” serves as perhaps the apotheosis of this brand of thematic explication, as he not only notes Vonnegut’s repeated references to his family history of deeply felt atheism, but actively traces the many multifaceted ways in which this brand of humanist thought permeates the author’s work (12, 70). Concomitantly, Leeds also provides a wealth of entries detailing key biographical information, highlighting formative events in Vonnegut’s life, outlining the biographies of family and friends, and charting the development of Vonnegut’s career as a writer. However, this biographical material is not presented in a vacuum but is instead carefully intertwined with an exploration of the author’s central thematic concerns. This is an extraordinarily apt and engaging manner of presenting the biographical details of an author who frequently drew on his own life experiences and transmuted them into fiction. In an entry on Vonnegut’s wartime experience of surviving the firebombing of Dresden in an underground meat locker, Leeds notes how “Vonnegut recall[ed] that despite whatever he was writing about at the time, he was always struggling with writing a book about Dresden. His vision of the world would become fixed during this underground episode” (12). Leeds then moves on to discuss how many of Vonnegut’s characters have similarly transformative underground experiences and observes the concordance of fictional narrative and biographical reality that dominates Vonnegut’s writings.
In this way, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia is a deceptively complex and insightful work. While initially appearing as a conventional encyclopedia, a simple catalogue of characters, settings, themes, and biographical details, it is ultimately a far more ambitious project. Taken as a whole, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia weaves together the diverse conceptual, thematic and aesthetic strands that define Vonnegut’s work in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the author’s extensive oeuvre. As such, not only does the book guide us through the world of Vonnegut’s fiction—providing definitions, glossaries, and histories—it also provides an engaging commentary on his work, unravelling the myriad recurring themes and textual preoccupations that have defined Vonnegut’s career. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia is an extraordinary resource for scholars, students, and anyone interested in exploring the rich, multi-faceted fictions of one of the twentieth-century’s most original voices. Not just a catalogue of definitions but a detailed textual exegesis, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia is a companion to the author’s work that leads readers through its labyrinthine fictive universes and interrelated textual worlds. Like an erudite and witty guide, Leeds provides an incisive commentary that unravels the complex histories and metatextual references that permeate Vonnegut’s literary oeuvre, providing both detailed explanations and insightful observations.
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