Review

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

by Gregory D. Sumner

Gregory D. Sumner’s UNSTUCK IN TIME sets out to to collect and analyze all of Kurt Vonnegut's work with respect to his biography. This is a weighty task, and one Sumner attempts out of a love for Vonnegut that is obvious throughout the book's pages. However, the scope of the project is so large that he can't quite do justice to the task --- nor could anyone, perhaps --- and the book turns out to be more an index of every Vonnegut novel than a complete analysis or biography.

"UNSTUCK TIME is a fun, easy read. Sumner's prose flows, but more importantly, reading about all of Vonnegut's novels one after another is fascinating."

UNSTUCK IN TIME begins with a short bio of Vonnegut that tells in broad strokes of his wealthy upbringing, the demise of his family fortune during the Great Depression, and his time at Cornell studying chemistry and working at the campus newspaper. It then moves on to consider his experience as a soldier during World War II, his attempt at a Masters in Anthropology at the University of Chicago (his thesis ideas were rejected so he quit without finishing, though he was honored with the degree later in life) and his first day job in PR at General Electric.

All of these experiences shaped the way Vonnegut writes. Sumner proves this point by spending the book's remaining chapters describing at length the plot of every Vonnegut novel, and outlining how certain plot points and themes connect to events in Vonnegut's life --- or what we know of it from the short description we are given.

But Sumner spends far more time describing each book than getting to a point. Had he chosen to discuss fewer of Vonnegut's works or focused on only certain aspects of them, he could have analyzed his points in more detail, and UNSTUCK IN TIME would have been less of Sumner proving to us that he has read every piece of Vonnegut literature and more of him telling us something interesting about the novels.

UNSTUCK IN TIME does allow us to see how Vonnegut's work evolved over time, yet the main focus of the book is how all of his novels are guided by a single ideology, one influenced by the events in his life. As Sumner sees it, this consists of Vonnegut’s sense of patriotism, his understanding of technology, and his love-hate relationship with capitalism.

However, many of Sumner's points are too speculative, and he is prone to dropping information into the book without explaining why he is mentioning it. For example, when discussing a car crash in DEADEYE DICK, he writes, “In its looming mystery the episode reminds us of ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’ of Don DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE.” Having read WHITE NOISE, I was excited when Sumner raised this point, and eager to hear what he had to say about it. This hypothesis probably could birth an entire book of its own --- whole academic circles are built around less --- but Sumner never takes the point any further. 

Still, UNSTUCK TIME is a fun, easy read. Sumner's prose flows, but more importantly, reading about all of Vonnegut's novels one after another is fascinating. As a compendium of all of his plots, it emphasizes the writer’s intense creativity. Not having read all of Vonnegut's work, I loved hearing about the wide range of topics he addresses in his novels and how different they all are from one another.

Reviewed by Katherine Tandler on January 5, 2012

Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels
by Gregory D. Sumner