Father of the Light Bulb

J. Robert Lennon

  • Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield
    Seven Stories, 911 pp, £29.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 60980 808 2

For decades, Kurt Vonnegut was an unshakeable, if unconventional, part of the American literary canon: even if his books didn’t find a lot of traction in academia, they were in every high school library. That’s where I first encountered him, some time in the mid-1980s, when I was supposed to be getting a head start on my homework before track practice. I’d been sitting in the fiction section when, bored, I pulled a book from a nearby shelf. It was Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and on the random page I opened there was a hand-drawn, many-splined asterisk. Above it, the text read: ‘To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole.’

I hadn’t realised that something like this could exist in my high school library – something so childishly, exuberantly vulgar. It turned out there was a lot about Breakfast of Champions that I hadn’t realised could exist: its intertwined plots, its stories within stories, its frank contemplation of mental illness and suicide. It was the first book I ever read that was about a writer, the first with a mentally unstable narrator, the first that employed metafiction, the first that was discursive and philosophical by design. I would later see these same themes and techniques used, perhaps with greater sophistication, by other writers, but Vonnegut was my original.

Unlike many Americans my age, I never studied Vonnegut at school. But it’s obvious why his books were popular with teachers. Slaughterhouse-Five, about the Allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, was a perfect book for impressionable readers ready to graduate from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: it was serious yet comic, historical yet quasi-science-fictional, complex in structure but straightforward in style. You could read it in a flash and feel you’d absorbed something of real importance – and its enigmatic story and anti-war message gave you a lot to talk about. I read Slaughterhouse-Five right after Breakfast of Champions, and then, feeling I should be more methodical, picked up Vonnegut’s first book, Player Piano, and read his work in order, filling in the handful of library gaps with my pocket money at the Waldenbooks in my local mall. Later, I’d start a rock band and name it Ice-Nine, after the horrifying military boondoggle in Cat’s Cradle (ice-nine is a form of water, solid at room temperature, that can turn all other water into itself), and write (I apologise) a rock opera based on Vonnegut’s novels that included songs about the sea-lionesque altered humans from Galapagos and the ‘chrono-synclastic infundibulum’ from The Sirens of Titan, a conceptual zone where conflicting truths resolve.

I suppose I must have encountered Vonnegut’s short fiction as I made my way through his work, but, save for ‘Harrison Bergeron’, his best-known and most adapted story, set in America c.2081, I didn’t remember any of it. As it happens, I missed a lot: this new Complete Stories is almost a thousand pages long. Lovingly edited by Dan Wakefield, a lifelong friend of Vonnegut’s and the editor of his letters, and by Jerome Klinkowitz, a scholar of Vonnegut’s work, this book collects definitive versions of all the stories he published in his lifetime, a number of posthumously collected stories, and five never before published, making a total of 97: ‘the short stories’, the editors tell us, ‘Kurt Vonnegut wanted the reading public to see’.

It’s not clear that Vonnegut would have been keen to see them collected, but he did want them published initially, primarily because, before the runaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five, they were his primary source of income. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when these stories were written, it was possible for a writer to make a living from short stories. The form was enjoying a brief period of popular appreciation: stories were published in the family weeklies Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, and in a number of publications still known by the retrograde term ‘women’s magazines’: Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal. Five stories published in a year, according to the editors, could give a writer in this period a living wage.

The casual reader might assume that Vonnegut’s short stories matched his novels in content and style, but with a few exceptions they don’t. The stories in this book weren’t labours of love – they were bread and butter, and he stopped writing them when he sold Slaughterhouse-Five. Some of them are inventive, entertaining, poignant. A few are moving. But most are schematic at best, hackneyed at worst. You can feel Vonnegut struggling to contain his natural exuberance and unconventionality. The worst of the stories talk down to his audience, and convey, more than anything, a boredom with the form.

The book is arranged in thematic chapters – ‘War’, ‘Science’, ‘Romance’ and the like – into which the stories fit uncomfortably. Each chapter opens with a short headnote from one of the editors, reflecting on the topic and the circumstances of their publication. There’s an avuncular bonhomie to the stories, a grandad’s-old-slippers familiarity. Many of them have a sentence or two fitting a formula in the opening paragraphs – ‘[Name of man] was [name of job] at [name of company] in [name of town]’ – before launching into a yarn about that man’s ethical or romantic or professional dilemma. There are puns and silly metaphors and dad jokes, as we’d call them. The characters have goofy names: Fuzz Littler, Lou Flammer, Red Mayo, Omar Zeitgeist, Ralph L. Thriller, K. Hollomon Weems. For the most part, the stories don’t have the psychological-realist framing that we might expect from short fiction today; they’re told in a bumptious first person or a very detached, largely omniscient third. Third limited, with its facility for nuance and character development, is rare. Most information is conveyed through expository dialogue: a concept is introduced and the characters banter about it for a page or so, in paid-by-the-word style, as in this passage from ‘Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog’:

‘I’ve been a drifter since the age of nine, since Edison set up his laboratory next to my home, and showed me the intelligence analyser.’

‘Edison?’ said Bullard. ‘Thomas Edison, the inventor?’

‘If you want to call him that, go ahead,’ said the stranger.

‘If I want to call him that?’ – Bullard guffawed – ‘I guess I just will! Father of the light bulb and I don’t know what all.’

‘If you want to think he invented the light bulb, go ahead. No harm in it.’ The stranger resumed his reading.

‘Say, what is this?’ said Bullard, suspiciously. ‘You pulling my leg? What’s this about an intelligence analyser? I never heard of that.’

‘Of course you haven’t,’ said the stranger …

Bullard was entranced. ‘Uh, this intelligence analyser,’ he said, ‘it analysed intelligence, did it?’

Among the more formulaic stories are a series of morality tales featuring a high school band director, the ‘kind fat man’ George M. Helmholtz, who must navigate the complexities of school funding and teenage drama: these get their own chapter, ‘The Band Director’. Another series, awkwardly bundled into the ‘Behaviour’ chapter (as in human behaviour, a subject, ostensibly, of all the stories in the book), features an unnamed investment adviser who finds himself temporarily entangled in the personal dramas of the very wealthy.

The best stories fall into three categories: the ones in the ‘Science’ chapter, in which Vonnegut riffs cleverly on the possible consequences of then current developments in science and technology; the ones in the ‘War’ chapter, which offered the veteran Vonnegut a moral framework he was comfortable in; and a few emotional dramas in which he backs away from formula. ‘The Cruise of the Jolly Roger’ is about a career army man who fails to die in battle then buys a boat which he sails aimlessly from place to place, waiting for his life to end; the story makes plain the disorienting, narrative-destroying nature of war. The morally ambiguous ‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is the best of a group of stories about con men and profiteers in postwar occupied Europe; in it, a Czech cabinetmaker learns that his liberators don’t respect him any more than the invaders did. ‘Long Walk to Forever’ is a romance, told mostly in dialogue between a young woman about to marry and the man – not her fiancé – she actually loves. In ‘Next Door’, a boy tries to save his neighbours’ marriage with a dedication to a call-in radio show; and in the previously unpublished ‘The Unknown Soldier’, a father mourns the death of his infant daughter, who had been celebrated as the first child born in the new millennium. ‘She was our first child,’ it ends, flatly and brutally. ‘Ah me.’

Though it’s hard to argue against the publication of the complete stories of a writer as significant as Vonnegut, it’s equally hard to justify the reprinting of some of them. ‘I can never get a woman into my stories,’ he wrote to a friend; later, in a Playboy interview, he said that he’d given up trying ‘to do women well’. Vonnegut was not, Wakefield writes in his introduction to the ‘Women’ chapter, ‘a woman hater’; he rightly points out that Vonnegut’s female characters struggle within the constraints society has placed on them. But he couldn’t take that final step of giving them agency. Every ‘girl’ in this book is either ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’, or the opposite; they are never not characterised by their degree of attractiveness. They marry, which is a happy outcome, or they don’t, which isn’t; a bad marriage is a miserable end, but it’s never an opportunity to break away into an independent life. We can’t demand that the Vonnegut of the 1950s magically, retroactively transform himself; but we don’t need to read these stories again.

Some are more interesting: in ‘Shout about It from the Housetops’, a woman writes a roman à clef about her town that becomes a surprise bestseller; her notoriety and her sudden affluence begin to destroy her marriage. Vonnegut recognises the gender inequality that gives rise to the woman’s problems, but can’t think of anything for her to long for other than to be a ‘dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again’. And in ‘Mrs Z’ a woman is blamed for the crimes of her lover, a mobster, and sent to jail, where she becomes the subject of a study conducted by a criminology student. In the end, the student marries her – disappointingly, out of pity.

Vonnegut’s male characters are also trapped by the limitations of polite society; they are terribly fragile, and easily humiliated by the slightest word or deed. Eddie Wetzel, the protagonist of ‘Miss Snow, You’re Fired’ (‘an engineer in charge of making big insulators in the Ceramics Department of the General Forge and Foundry Company in Ilium, New York’) at first seems brutalised by his own shallowness and resentment: ‘He had strong feelings about beautiful women,’ Vonnegut writes. ‘He hated and feared them.’ As is often the case in these tales, he woos a woman by mistreating her, and they marry. Over and over, the men are boys and the women surrogate mothers – Vonnegut can see it, he knows it’s no good, but he doesn’t act against it.

The same can be said for his treatment of race, less prominent here. He comes roaring up to an important insight, then pulls back at the last second. In the bizarre ‘Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp’ a white man pays a pregnant black woman, Ella, to pose as a ‘jinni’ who will make his wife’s wishes come true; instead, the two women form a bond. We actually get a few lines from Ella’s point of view in this story; she gets up from the couch ‘to do the crazy thing the white man was going to pay for’. But the story fizzles out. By the end, he’s telling the reader that ‘Everything Ella said was in a dialect typical of a person of her race and class and degree of education back then.’ And in ‘The Lie’, the scion of the rich white Remenzel family fails to be accepted at a prestigious prep school, while ‘thirty Africans … at the request of the State Department, were being admitted.’ It’s hard to understand why Vonnegut had to include this. He could just have given a smart teenage son to the Remenzels’ black driver, Ben Barkley, who is initially presented as the story’s protagonist before fading into the background. Why not have the driver’s child get into the school? Vonnegut seems to create an opportunity to make the political personal, but in the end, he flinches.

Vonnegut’s bemusement at the social changes sweeping America is nowhere more obvious than in his most famous story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’. It’s filed, in this book, under ‘Futuristic’, and posits a world so obsessed with equality that every talented person is given government-issued artificial handicaps: the intelligent have loud noises blasted into their ears, and the graceful are hobbled by pieces of sheet metal. It was intended, I suspect, as a fable about government overreach – Klinkowitz tries to spin it as appealing equally to 1960s liberals and conservatives, both of whom distrusted big government – but today it reads like white male paranoia, a crotchety rant against affirmative action. Similarly, the dystopian ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’, the closest stylistic cousin to the Vonnegut of the novels, presents rape as a therapeutic solution to female frigidity. In 2014, the novelist (and self-identified Vonnegut fan) Kathleen Founds wrote, in a piece for Buzzfeed, that the story embraces ‘the myth that a woman who dresses provocatively shouldn’t be surprised if a man forces her to have sex. The myth that women unconsciously desire to be raped. The myth that proud, stuck-up women must be humbled through rape. The myth that rape is corrective, a cure.’

In a bewilderingly slight foreword to this collection, Dave Eggers contextualises Vonnegut’s short work like this:

The moral story is gone. The fable is gone. They cannot be found in contemporary literature. Not even in children’s literature. Writers do not feel inclined to tell their fellow human beings how to live.

Most of the stories in this collection are moral stories. They tell us what’s right and what’s wrong, and they tell us how to live. In 2017, this is a radical act.

It’s hard to overstate how wrong this is. Only months ago, there was heated debate about Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story ‘Cat Person’, a vignette about sex, gender and the social mores of dating. It was a moral story that was the most talked-about piece of fiction of last year. The 2016 edition of the venerable Best American Short Stories anthology, edited by Junot Díaz, bristled with moral tales about race and class. And independent bookstores are full of collections of ‘dark fables’, often by celebrated short story writers – Kelly Link, Karen Russell – as well as newcomers such as Lesley Nneka Arimah and Carmen Maria Machado.

Perhaps what Eggers means isn’t moral fiction, but morally simplistic fiction: stories that give up their insights easily, that demand little of the reader. The burden of moral simplicity, in our era, falls largely on television, which took the place of the popular short story in the 1960s, and made life as a professional short story writer all but impossible. Black Mirror is a good example: it’s a classy, stylish, highly entertaining vehicle for morally simplistic tales. Like most of Vonnegut’s stories, Black Mirror knows exactly what it is: egalitarian entertainment informed by contemporary values and fears. The short story, meanwhile, is ambitious, broad in scope and style and almost impossible to make money from. If you want to see the values of an American era through the lens of an unusual imagination, these stories might satisfy. But if you want to see Vonnegut at his best, stick to the novels.