Sunday, June 25, 2006

Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I’ve always been a Kurt Vonnegut fan, ever since I first read Cat's Cradle in high school; I re-read it last summer and fell in love with the characters once more. Monkey House is a collection of short stories, written in the 1950s and ‘60s. Many would be considered science fiction, and like most works of that era, are heavily influenced by the Cold War. Indeed, most of these stories are products of their time and might be lost on twenty-first century readers in their twenties. Those who’ve read Vonnegut before would recognize some familiar locations such as Wyandotte College and Ilium, N.Y. And the preface of the Dell paperback I read has a few pages from the writer, who gives autobiographical details, such as his former job as a publicist for General Electric, so even those new to Vonnegut will gain some understanding of who this man is.

I believe I read these short stories when I was in college, and I’d essentially forgotten the details of all but “Harrison Bergeron.” By decades, this work precedes the term “politically correct,” but it’s a biting satire of people’s well-intentioned desire for fairness. To make all people equal, the intelligent are handicapped with shocks and noise that distract their minds from deep thoughts. The beautiful are fashioned with masks, and ballerinas lumber on stage with weights. Harrison’s parents, George and Hazel, learn that their son Harrison has broken free from authorities, and as an announcement is being made, he crashes onto the stage, declares himself emperor, removes the mask of a lovely ballerina, and orders the musicians to play without their handicaps. Of course, such independent thought is not tolerated, and when the TV screen returns, George notices Hazel has been crying. She can’t remember why, and the sound of a riveting gun hammers any thoughts out of George’s head.

At the other extreme is the story “Adam,” in which Heinz Knechtmann has become a father. He is a sad sack of a man, a small, slightly hunched man who works in a dry-cleaning plant. A Jewish immigrant living on the South Side of Chicago, Knechtmann’s family was killed by the Nazis. He walks into a bar to toast the birth of his son, Peter Kroll Knechtmann -- named after notable relatives who've been lost -- and while the bartender and another new father join him in his toast, eventually the discussion turns to the White Sox. Though Heinz tolerates the American tendency to mispronounce his surname “Netman,” he seethes at their careless attitude toward life – especially new life. Frustrated, he almost acquiesces to anonymity, but when he finally rejoins his wife at the hospital, he is rejuvenated.

“The baby, Heinz--” She opened her dark eyes wide. “It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Heinz.

Vonnegut’s characters are what entrance me, and I enjoy the tone of his writing. At times cynical and sarcastic, his voice remains interesting from one story to the next.


T DWORSKY said...

Nice tone to your blog, very nice. I wanted to say that I happened across a fantastic little book by Sam Savage called Firmin. That little rat sure tells an enlightening story. Of course, I can also recommend my own writing. My blog (so far) covers up to chapter ten of my novel Interior Fields and if you check there you'll find links to the novel I published on called Claiming Rain King.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks T. I'll take a look at your blog. Good luck with the novel. Completing the first draft is difficult, but getting it to the point where it's publishable is even tougher.