Repetition and Generalities
Peter J. Reed. The Short Fiction of Kurt
Vonnegut. Contributions to the Study of American Literature #1.
Greenwood (800-225-5800), 1997. xix + 175. $55.00.
Since his early book on Vonnegut's first few
novels, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Crowell, 1972), Peter J. Reed has continued to
immerse himself in Vonnegut's work, contributing authoritative biographies to reference
works, publishing interviews with Vonnegut, and co-editing The Vonnegut Chronicles
(Greenwood, 1996), where he wrote lucidly on Vonnegut's painting as well as on his novels.
Judging from several knowledgeable asides in this book, he is also familiar with the stage
and media adaptations of Vonnegut's novels. In "The Short Fiction and the
Canon," the authoritative final chapter of The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut,
Reed deploys his considerable knowledge of the Vonnegut oeuvre in the service of clear
perceptions and critical judgment. "The short fiction remains complementary to the
earlier novels," he contends, "much as the short non-fiction, in
essays, speeches and collections, complements the later novels. They are an essential part
of Vonnegut's extraordinarily versatile literary creativity, and arguably more central to
it than his ventures into drama, poetry, libretto and requiem" (154). "Looking
back...in the magazines in which they were originally published, they [the stories] often
appear strikingly less dated than the advertisements and illustrations..." (153).
Unfortunately, he only asserts, without exploring in any detail, the tantalizing
perception that "the interplay of science fiction and realism in the stories leads on
to the postmodern mixes of genre and technique evident in most of his later books"
(147). Even more unfortunately, Reed's volume as a whole does not measure up to the
general strengths of its final chapter.
Kurt Vonnegut began his writing career at the top
of his trade with impressive early sales of short stories to the high-paying popular slick
magazines. From 1952 to 1963, or for less than one-quarter of his long, prolific
fiction-writing career, he published over forty stories in a variety of magazines,
including Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Redbook,
Galaxy Science Fiction, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
He first collected a dozen stories in Canary in a Cat House (1961). Later, well
after he stopped writing short stories, he reprinted eleven of the original
twelve--dropping "Hal Irwin's Magic Lamp" in favor of "EPICAC"--and
added another dozen for a total of twenty-three in Welcome to the Monkey House
(1968). After 1963, Vonnegut concentrated his energies on writing novels, occasional
pieces, and reviews. In 1968 and again in 1972 (Reed gives 1971 in his Chronology), he
did, however, write single stories on request. The first, written on assignment from Playboy,
is reprinted as the title story in Welcome to the Monkey House. The second,
written on assignment from Harlan Ellison for inclusion in his anthology Again,
Dangerous Visions (1972), is reprinted in Palm Sunday (1981). Vonnegut
published no stories in 1959, 1965-1971, or from 1972 to the present.
Reed examines all of Vonnegut's forty-six
published short stories, briefly recounting the plots of each and giving their provenance,
including sometimes a description of magazine illustrations. He comments on each story,
relates it to the novels, but rarely offers much in the way of analysis. The book's major
weakness stems from this attempt at completeness which leads to reviewing most stories
three separate times: first, Reed discusses each one chronologically by date of
publication; next, he considers each when and if it was collected; and finally, he
reconsiders most of them in relation to the Vonnegut canon. For example, "Hal Irwin's
Magic Lamp" is discussed first in the context of its original appearance in Cosmopolitan
(June 1957), with Reed anticipating the question of why it will not be included in Welcome
to the Monkey House (Reed 57-58). Discussing the story a second time when reviewing Welcome
to the Monkey House, he raises the identical issue of omission in almost the same
words, not once but twice (95). Similar unnecessary repetition occurs in the discussion
of, among others, "Deer in the Works," where the mention of an added sentence
(70) is repeated verbatim (104). The argument over the failure of the Saturday Evening
Post to publish "The Hyannis Port Story" after accepting it (90) is
reiterated twice (95 and 169). Such repetitions appear to suggest that various chapters of
this book may have been written at different times or perhaps for different occasions,
then stitched together without a lot of attention paid to how well they might fit.
The actual discussion of Vonnegut's short
fiction, however, occupies only about half of Reed's book, with the remainder devoted to
Vonnegut's non-fiction, including stage and television plays (105-106, 108) and high
school and college journalism (9-26, 157-166). Kilgore Trout rates a full chapter
(125-136), while another is devoted to an overview of the novels (111-123). This mixture
dissipates Reed's focus for, whatever else they may have been, Vonnegut's high school and
college writing, his plays, and his novels are clearly not short stories. In breezing
through the novels looking for interpolations that resemble short stories, Reed
predictably discusses the unwritten stories by Kilgore Trout which exist mostly as plot
outlines. He also enumerates the recipes and calypsos, scat singing and drawings, none of
which--even if interpolated into the text like a Trout story--is short fiction.
Unfortunately and wholly irrelevantly, he drags in the old controversy over Philip
Framer's [sic] borrowing of Trout for the novella, Venus on the Half-Shell--an
incident closed long ago (129-130).1
As a result of this sprawl, Reed often appears to
be avoiding the very stories that are the subject of his book. For example, after giving
the plot outline and introducing the characters of "Deer in the Works," Reed
comments that "Quite obviously, this story has a lot to do with Vonnegut's own
experience as a public relations writer for General Electric." As evidence he notes
that the main character is hired to do PR and "Vonnegut disliked much PR work"
(70). Such an obvious remark does little to illuminate either Reed's argument or the
story. He continues: "The flavor of this story resembles that of Player Piano...."
Why such a tentative judgment? Vonnegut published this story in Esquire in 1955,
three years after Player Piano had appeared. Clearly, Vonnegut mined his own
novel for plot, values, and theme. Like all his positive, optimistic short stories, this
one is a far cry from the cynical, pessimistic early novels. In Player Piano, an
abortive revolution leads to mindless destruction and, in the end, the forces of
repression regain their power. On the other hand, the deer in the short story--about which
Reed says that it "makes only the briefest appearance at the end"--symbolizes
the positive values of vitality, freedom, pride, and nature. After being trapped in the
maze-like "Works," the deer successfully gains its release in the happy ending.
There is, however, a price to be paid for encountering men and machines seen in the deer's
being "streaked with [their] soot and grease" and having its antlers broken. The
human protagonist follows the deer and also heads for the woods. Wisely, he "didn't
look back," but chose the freedom offered by nature and the greater security to be
found in a world constructed on a human scale over the promise of financial security in
the inhuman "Works" (Welcome to the Monkey House 220-221).
In his third published story, "EPICAC"
(1950), which precedes Player Piano, a computer blows its fuses over not being
human and therefore not being able to love. Its last printed words are: "I don't want
to be a machine, and I don't want to think about war. I want [to be human]"--which is
impossible, so it self-destructs, leaving a suicide note and hundreds of love poems behind
(Welcome to the Monkey House 284). As Reed notes, the situation is somewhat
similar to that of the machine messenger in The Sirens of Titan (1959), Salo, who
self-destructs because he gives in to the demands of human friendship and thereby betrays
his programmed mission to carry his almost meaningless message across the universe. But
the short story has no such complicating issues as divided loyalties. Instead, the machine
simply desires to become human--Pygmalion in the information/computer age--and, when this
proves impossible, chooses not to exist. The obvious contrast to this warm, fuzzy fantasy
of the machine-that-would-be-human, unmentioned by Reed, is Checker Charlie in Player
Piano. In the championship checker match of machine versus human, Checker Charlie
erupts in flames that destroy its circuits. It loses the match to Paul Proteus not because
it despairs of becoming human like EPICAC, but because an incompetent human incorrectly
wired it.2 Furthermore, its defeat cannot in any significant way be considered
a defeat for machines or automation generally. In the novel, all power in the United
States still rests with the formidable EPICAC XIV which, from its lair in the Carlsbad
Caverns in Colorado, runs everything, is "dead right about every thing" (Player
Piano 116), and ultimately controls everyone in the country. EPICAC XIV continues to
run smoothly, untouched by anything human including the abortive Ilium rebellion.
Reed also has little to say about what may be
Vonnegut's most anthologized story, "Harrison Bergeron" (which appeared
originally in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). Reed contends rightly
that "it is hard to see 'Harrison Bergeron' as mainstream science fiction" (80);
however, the story is "mainstream" satire, the kind of dystopian
fantasy at which Vonnegut excels and which the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
quite frequently published. Readers of that magazine, like readers of Welcome to the
Monkey House, do not need to be told that "these things [actions in the story]
cannot happen" and that events are "exaggerated" (81). That is to state the
obvious. Indeed, Reed's critical discussion of this classic story--one of the few that
shares the darker vision of Vonnegut's dystopian novels--is extremely superficial.
"Harrison Bergeron," Reed believes, "can be seen as, among other things,
another statement by Vonnegut on censorship, an issue about which he has very strong
feelings"; "the 'serious' topic that the story declares itself to be concerned
with is equality" (81). The "story clearly satirizes an obsession with
equalizing" (82), and "in the main, the topic of equality serves comic
purposes" (82). All true, but a more vital point might be how and in what ways the
story's comedy serves Vonnegut's satiric purposes by creating a reductio ad absurdum
situation where everyone is indeed equal except for those in charge.3
Vonnegut's short stories are more likely to be in
the fantastic mode than science fiction, but Reed fails to mention or discuss that mode.
In fact, he omits any reference to the considerable body of criticism and theory available
on the subject, preferring to carry on his discussion in a critical vacuum. The only essay
he consistently cites is Leslie Fiedler's relatively early "The Divine Stupidity of
Kurt Vonnegut" (published in 1970). He additionally creates some confusion by
generally using the term "science fiction," then occasionally substituting
"sci-fi," while never indicating what, if anything, distinguishes them as
descriptive or critical terms. (He does little with science fiction except to note
Vonnegut's interest in technology and his casting several stories in the future.) Much of
the best Vonnegut criticism, formerly available only in scholarly journals including Science-Fiction
Studies, has been conveniently collected by Leonard Mustazza in The Critical
Response to Kurt Vonnegut (Greenwood, 1994). Reed makes no use of this volume,
including Ellen Rose Cowan's thorough discussion of Vonnegut's specific uses of science
fiction ("It's All a Joke: Science Fiction in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan").
Her essay--or others like it--could provide a basis for comparing Vonnegut's use of
science fiction in the stories with that in at least one novel. Similarly, Gary Wolfe's
important early study in 1972 of "the manner in which Vonnegut uses science
fiction" (64), uncollected by Mustazza but nevertheless readily available, could
stimulate reflection on science fiction as metaphor in the novels and stories.
Ironically, Reed's critical intelligence appears
at its best in enumerating values and themes found in Vonnegut's novels rather than in
discussing the stories. Here, the argument is often insightful, but his format again leads
him into repetition and generalities. (For instance, the discussion of Kilgore Trout,
while germane, repeats what both Reed and Vonnegut have said several times elsewhere.)
Vonnegut's significance as a writer resides in his novels, not in his stories, which are
apprentice work. The stories are, therefore, important, but not overly important in any
discussion of Vonnegut's career. "With the disappearance of the magazine market in
the late fifties, Vonnegut was forced to devote all his time to novel writing. The choice
proved a happy one, for his novels are far better than his stories. It was as if he needed
the room novels gave him to stretch out: to deepen his characters, to try out stylistic
effects over a couple of hundred pages, and to follow where his 'conscience would lead him
artistically'" (Morse, Reader's Guide 108). Also, Vonnegut's juvenile and
college journalism, to which Reed devotes so much space, is "interesting"--to
borrow one of his favorite critical terms--in showing the formation of Vonnegut's values,
which remain consistent from that day to this. His writing for the Cornell Sun
was, however, previously discussed and evaluated by Robert Scholes a quarter of a century
ago and little new is added here. Far more annoying is Reed's creation of problems where
none really exist. For instance, he speculates in several places why "Hal Irwin's
Magic Lamp" is the only story of the thirteen in Canary in a Cat House not
reprinted in Welcome to the Monkey House, yet even a cursory reading of that
story's clearly dated racist language and stereotyping creates embarrassment. It should
come therefore as no surprise that Vonnegut dropped it from his second collection. In his
novels and speeches, Vonnegut became a public spokesperson for racial equality and the
burying of racial stereotypes (see especially Breakfast of Champions ).
Black characters in his novels are uniformly sympathetic. Surely he does not need to be
haunted by this piece of slick magazine filler.
Problems of inaccuracy occur throughout--some
serious, many trivial or simply annoying. The Chronology gives 1971 as the date of
Vonnegut's last published story whereas the Bibliography gives 1972, as does Vonnegut
himself in Palm Sunday. Similarly, the Chronology says that "The Hyannis
Port Story" "did not appear until 1971," yet the Bibliography gives 1968 as
the publication date, and it is properly discussed as appearing in Welcome to the
Monkey House. The title story of that collection--originally published in Playboy
in January 1968--is listed in the Chronology as a "new story" (xv) in the volume
when it was no newer than any of the other stories published since Canary in a Cat
House. More serious are the several crucial errors Reed makes in describing and
accounting for the stories and other material collected in Welcome to the Monkey House.
There are not twenty-five (93, 95), but twenty-three stories in the volume. The other two
items are a non-fiction introduction, "Where I Live" (originally published in Venture--Traveler's
World in 1964), which Reed rightly does not list as fiction in his bibliography
(168-69), and Vonnegut's highly original review of the Random House Dictionary
reprinted from The York Times Book Review. Reed correctly contends that
"HOLE BEAUTIFUL: Prospectus for a Magazine of Shelteredness" "does not
qualify as a short story" (88), but then he includes it in the bibliography of short
stories (169). "Fortitude," according to Reed, is "written in the form of a
play, or more specifically, the script for a television or short film production,"
but then he concludes that it "represents fiction" when gathered in the 1974
non-fiction collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (105). Still more
absurdly, he first describes Jekyll and Hyde Updated as "The other fictional
contribution to Palm Sunday," then terms it a "script" which
includes "musical and dance numbers," and finally claims it "represents a
distinctly different genre from the short story" (these contradictory statements
appear in the same paragraph! ). "Der Arme Dolmetscher," originally
published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1955, is not discussed chronologically with
the other stories from that period (59-74) but much later in the chapter on
"collections" (103-104). This placement is misleading and suggests that the
story appeared in Welcome to the Monkey House. In fact, Vonnegut has never
reprinted it in any collection, although it is listed by mistake in the copyright
acknowledgments for Welcome to the Monkey House. Also, Reed omits that story from
his short story bibliography (168-69).
There are also serious mechanical and stylistic
problems. Typos bloom throughout, as does the repetition of phrases (76 and 142),
quotations (75 and 142), descriptions, facts (90, 93, and 95; 76 and 142), and value
judgments (102 and 143; 76 and 142; 135 and 146). Phrases such as "as noted
previously" (91, 95), "to repeat" (95), and "as noted earlier"
(95) appear with embarrassing frequency. "Interesting" is used as a critical
term (62, 78, 86 twice, 155). An appendix chronologically lists all of Vonnegut's
contributions to his high school and college newspapers (1938-1943) by M. Andre A.
Eckenrode (none are described as short stories). There is an incomplete bibliography of
Vonnegut's short stories, a very skimpy and mostly out of date "Other Works
Cited," and an index of limited usefulness since it includes no Vonnegut books or
stories. In sum, while Reed has produced distinguished work on Vonnegut in the past, this
title leaves much to be desired.
1. Since 1988, Venus on the Half-Shell
has been published under Farmer's own name with an introduction outlining his side of
events, "Why and How I Became Kilgore Trout" (v-ix). Vonnegut has given his
version several times in various published interviews. (Reed includes neither Farmer nor
his book in the index.) On a similar score, Reed includes a long, unnecessary note in the
Chronology about National Educational Television's production of "Between Time and
Timbuktu" (1972). According to the published script, Vonnegut worked as
"advisor...and contributor" while David O'Dell did "the first draft of the
script, most of which survived" (Vonnegut, Between xi). Vonnegut also wrote
an informative preface outlining his tangential relation to the production (xiii-xvii), so
there is no need for Reed's elaborate denial of Vonnegut's authorship.
2. Slightly over forty years later, Garry
Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player in history, will win his first much-touted
chess match in 1996 against Big Blue, the IBM computer itself programmed by a chess
champion. Big Blue failed to beat its human competitor not because of a mechanical failure
or shortcoming but because of a human failure to program more possible moves for the
computer to consider. In 1997, after five computer scientists worked fifteen months to
create another machine, Deep Blue, and sent it to school with a chess grandmaster whom
they employed full time to play against the machine and analyze the weaknesses of its
game, the results were different. While Kasparov won their first game, he went on to lose
the match. In 1996 Deep Blue could "scan 100 million positions per second. The new
machine ... can do 200 million a second. Sometimes, 300 million" (Levy 47). Steven
Levy, writing about the match for Newsweek, might have been discussing Vonnegut's
novel or story when he wrote: "there's a deep irony in this epochal clash between
cell and circuitry. Deep Blue is a machine, but its training consists of programming and
chess lessons from impassioned human beings" (48). This is Vonnegut's point exactly:
human beings invent machines, improve machines, and repair machines, yet apparently forget
why they have machines. In Vonnegut's story it is ironically the machine itself which has
to recall to its human inventors, as well as to the human readers of "EPICAC,"
that machine efficiency and speed are no substitute for human consciousness and feeling.
3. Reed's point of comparison between this tale
and Animal Farm concerns "the balance between comical rendering and moral
messages," which, he says, "becomes almost reversed in the two stories"
(82). A second point of comparison between the story and Orwell's fable occurs after Diana
Moon Glampers blasts Harrison and his fellow dancer out of the air, ending that short but
suspended moment of freedom. Harrison Bergeron's parents, watching his death on
television, are manipulated by the forces in charge into not identifying either with their
son's moment of freedom or with his death. (For a discussion of Vonnegut as satirist, see
Morse, "Kurt Vonnegut.") The parallel in Animal Farm occurs when the
animals are manipulated by Squealer into believing that Boxer, the faithful horse, did not
get hauled away by the knackers but had a peaceful death "in the hospital at
Willingdon" (114-15). "Harrison Bergeron" may also share with Orwell's Animal
Farm a "great seriousness about the nature of political change" (Michael
Shelden quoted in Morse, "Blatancy" 89-90), but the two stories diverge in that
Orwell's laughter at human failings "is untinged with bitterness or despair"
(Shelden in Morse, "Blatancy" 90), whereas Vonnegut's laughter partakes of both
bitterness and despair. For a discussion of Animal Farm as composed fantasy, see
Morse, "Blatancy" 85-92.
Cowan, Ellen Rose. "It's All a Joke: Science
Fiction in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan." Literature and
Psychology 29 (1979): 160-168. Reprinted in Mustazza 15-23.
Farmer, Philip José. Venus on the Half-Shell.
1974. NY: Bantam, 1988.
Fiedler, Leslie. "The Divine Stupidity of
Kurt Vonnegut." Esquire (September 1970): 195+.
Levy, Steven. "Man vs. Machine." Newsweek
(12 May 1997): 43-48.
Morse, Donald E. "'A Blatancy of Untruth':
George Orwell's Uses of the Fantastic in Animal Farm." Hungarian Journal
of English and American Studies 1.2 (1995): 85-92.
"Kurt Vonnegut: The Once and Future
Satirist." In The Dark Fantastic, ed. C. W. Sullivan III. Westport, CT:
Greenwood, 1997. 161-169.
Mustazza, Leonard. The Critical Response to
Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story.
1946. NY: New American Library, 1956.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Between Time and Timbuktu or
Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy Based on Materials by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. NY: Delta,
Player Piano. 1952. NY: Dell, 1974.
Welcome to the Monkey House. NY: Dell,
Wolfe, G. K. "Vonnegut and the Metaphor of
Science Fiction: The Sirens of Titan." Journal of Popular Culture 4
Back to Home