Sunday, March 27, 2011

Welcome to the Monkey House (1950-1968)

Kurt Vonnegut's first and likely best collection of short pieces—most are stories, but a few other things are scattered in as well—is where I started with him, back in the misty climes of the past. It's not a bad place to start, though I think a few of his novels are probably better (notably The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, or Slaughterhouse-Five). What surprises me about this collection is how many of the stories amount to little more than badly dated women's fare, in tone as well as subject matter; three were published originally in "Cosmopolitan" and three others in "Ladies' Home Journal." They are the kind of sentimental tripe that only a cynic of the highest order could produce, with titles such as "Long Walk to Forever" and "Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son." Read them as closely as you can and you find only the barest hints, if that, of the dark comic sensibility behind them—which is interesting in itself. The science fiction exercises, perhaps a third of the selections, mask that sensibility nearly equally as well behind another set of commercial priorities, albeit one that allows more latitude for the wry or offbeat. In "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," for example (published originally in 1950 in "Collier's"), his antiwar priorities are already plainly in place as a scientist develops and taps into psychic powers, taking them underground to begin systematically destroying the most dangerous weapons systems of belligerent states. This makes him a menace, of course. "The Euphio Question" (also from "Collier's," this time from 1951) imagines a specific band of radio waves emanating from somewhere out there as dangerous narcotic, with comic results. Some of these stories, such as "Harrison Bergeron" (from "Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine" in 1961), which conceives a world in which human equality of every imaginable kind is bizarrely and elaborately mandated via reduction to lowest common denominator, have stuck with me all my life as frames or explanations of the vicissitudes of my own experience. Since that is arguably the point of literature and art in the first place, one would have to call this at least in part a resounding success. It is otherwise almost always interesting, often amusing, and, as usual with Vonnegut, compulsively readable once begun.

In case it's not at the library.

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