It was Vonnegut that claimed that a story should behave in such a way that were you to lose the last page, you, the reader, still ought to be able to finish it to your satisfaction. A story on rails. So I guess he didn’t think much of twist endings either. Or at least, only the right kind of twist.
Like Asimov, Vonnegut’s writing is, at the surface level, the words, the sentences, almost simplistic. He tends to insert rather more of himself, his narration has its own character, its own idiosyncratic, knowing voice, with the occasional nod and a wink to the reader. Having recommended him in novel form for a book club, (‘Galapagos’, for the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club) I’m painfully aware that his fourth-wall breaking style is not to everyone’s taste, even as it varied across his long career, as he became both more reflective and perhaps more comfortable with breaking the rules, whatever they are.
‘Happy Birthday, 1951’ is a straight-told tale that works whether that titular date is 1951, or 1991, or 2021. It’s 1951 for Vonnegut, because the boy in the story is six and was left with an old man at the end of a war. Thewar. But add six to any armed conflict, now, or in the future, and it will work just as well. It’s bittersweet: “Tomorrow I’ll take you away from the war”, promises the old man. It contains a kernel of hope, but the hope doesn’t get the nourishment you’d expect, that you might get from another writer, one who hadn’t experienced the horrors of war and their aftermath. Vonnegut knows, and though there’s no violence in the story it still feels like a gut-punch, that you can’t get away from war. Not even when it is over. Whether you like it or not, the history you grow up in moulds you. Nostalgia for days gone by is a luxury of those the present leaves behind, and the generational gap can be as unfathomable as speaking a different language.
Published posthumously in Armageddon in Retrospect, 2008, Vintage, Random House