Catching up with Classics: Kurt Vonnegut
Posted April 25, 2011on:
Published in 1968
where I got it: purchased used, this is a 1970 printing
why I read it: been reading his stuff for a long time, and loving every word of it.
You can’t tell from the reviews on this site, but I’ve read a LOT of Kurt Vonnegut over the years. Although there is such a thing as Vonnegut overload, the more I read his stuff, the more I like it. Welcome to the Monkey House is collection of his earlier short works, written between 1950 and 1968. A lot of the stories are hilariously dated, but mostly, they are just hilarious in the darkest way possible. A few of the entries are straight up Scifi taking place in the near or far future, but many of them take place present day (a la the American 1950’s) and have to do with humanity going sour, and us thinking we know everything when in reality all we’re doing is screwing things up more by trying to do right.
I read my first Vonnegut novel, Galapagos, at around age 19. I had no idea who Kurt Vonnegut was, or what the point of the novel was, I just knew that I liked it and that I wanted more. As the years have passed, I’ve realized why I love Vonnegut so much: The man says what he thinks, all the time. in literature, in scifi, in interviews where politics come up. He says what he thinks and believes, and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks. One day I hope to be that brave.
Here’s my thoughts on a few of the short stories in Welcome to the Monkey House.
Harrison Bergeron (1961) – probably the most famous of the collection, I’m always surprised at how short this story is. In a not so distant future, it’s been decided that since all persons are not naturally created equally (some are taller, some shorter, some prettier, some plainer, some better at music, some better at sports, etc) that it is the government’s job to make us equal. Beautiful people are forced to wear ugly masks, smart people forced to wear headsets that make it impossible for them to think by giving them headaches, strong people forced to wear weights and other impediments. All natural talents are stripped away, everything is geared towards the lowest common denominator, because it’s just not fair that anyone should be better than someone else at anything. Fourteen year old Harrison Bergeron, a naturally tall, strong, and brilliantly smart young man (cliche, I know, but it’s to a purpose) decides it’s all bullshit. Many literary critics view Harrison Bergeron as anti-socialist, and pro-individualism. I view it merely as the best intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong, a theme Vonnegut returns to over and over again. Ever see the movie Idiocracy? I have to wonder if the writers of that movie read Vonnegut.
All The King’s Horses (1953) – not so much Scifi as horror, an American diplomat and his family are caught behind enemy lines when their airplane goes down. The dictator of the enemy country offers to let them go, if the diplomat can win a game of chess. The fly in the ointment (wasn’t there an episode of Star Trek the next generation that ripped this off?) is that the chess pieces are the diplomat’s wife, children, and the soldiers traveling with him. Anyone whose ever played chess knows you happily sacrifice your pawns to save your bishops. The game plays pretty different when you’re playing with lives.
Who am I this time? (1961) A cute little love story about taking method acting way, way too far. Is it the most romantic thing ever? Or do these two lovebirds need to be institutionalized?
Report on the Barnhouse Effect (1950) the other famous story in this collection. Narrated by Professor Barnhouse’s unnamed assistant, this tells the tale of Barnhouse’s discovery of dynamopsychism, the force of the mind. Not too distant from what Yoda taught, Dr. Barnhouse learns to how change the throwing of dice, move objects across the room, and generally change the course of the universe, just by thinking about it. Barnhouse has beautiful plans to use “the force” for good, running generators, digging wells, bringing needed resources to obscure corners of the world. But the government sees it as the best superweapon ever. Again, Vonnegut’s favorite game of some regular person having the best of intentions and the “folks in charge” throwing everything down the shitter.
The Manned Missiles (1958) written around the time of Laika, this was the most emotional story for me. You’d think all these stories would be emotional, with their dark satire and sometimes horrific elements, but Vonnegut’s journalistic objective matter-of-fact writing style often insulates the reader from emotion. Not so in this story, or at least not for me, which consists, simply, of two letters. The first letter, written by the father of the first Soviet sent into space, written to the father of the first American sent into space, and the second letter is the American man’s reply. Neither of their sons came home.
I could happily keep writing little blurbs for the stories in this volume, because I found every single one to be enjoyable. If you’ve never read Vonnegut, this is a perfect place to start. Reprinted in the late 90’s, copies should be floating around and fairly accessible.