When a renowned author dies, two critical processes begin: first, placing the writer in the pantheon; and second, digging out every jot, every piece of juvenilia, every previously unseen word the deceased wrote. Kurt Vonnegut’s place in American literary history is secure by virtue of the novels that earned him cult status in the ‘60s: the science-fiction send-up The Sirens of Titan (1959); the political satire Cat’s Cradle (1963); and his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), one of the great works to come out of World War II.
As for writing left behind at his death, here we have Look at the Birdie, a collection of previously unpublished works that Vonnegut wrote in the ‘50s or thereabouts, when he was working in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and as a car dealer on Cape Cod while writing for the slicks.
What are the slicks? you ask. Well, boys and girls, as difficult as it may to believe (as difficult as it may someday be for later generations to believe that information was delivered on paper and produced in printing plants), there once were shiny magazines with names such as Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies’ Home Journal that regularly featured fiction and paid by the word, often very well.
It was middlebrow stuff, seemingly — the kind of formulaic but thought-provoking writing that moved on to TV after the slicks withered, and still occasionally lifts a sit-com or drama.
Vonnegut was no hack, but he needed to make a living, and so he became a staple of these publications (in good company that included the likes of Louis L’Amour and Elmore Leonard, among others).
In a 1951 letter included in this book, Vonnegut observes: “... of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harper’s or the New Yorker, by God, you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.”
So he did, but his work both faithfully followed pop formulae and subverted them, as he showed in his 1968 collection of stories written for the slicks, Welcome to the Monkey House. One piece in that collection, “Harrison Bergeron”, slyly questioned 1950s conformity, while “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” delivered an indictment of brinkmanship.
One would expect that this collection would have few stories to equal those, since none of this batch was ever published, but there are a few standouts. In “Confido”, an eager inventor working as a lab rat at a huge hearing-aid manufacturer comes up with a device that offers sympathetic words through an earpiece. “The voice was tiny and high, like a child’s voice through a comb with tissue paper stretched over it.”
The inventor’s wife discovers that the gizmo taps into our baser impulses, whispering words of self-pity, envy, and anger. In the age of the Kitchen of Tomorrow, technological advances did not necessarily represent human improvement (a lesson we see magnified in our tweeting, emoticon times).
The charming “FUBAR” develops the nightmare of the organization man, but offers the hope that human kindness and love can show a way out. Fuzz Littler, a PR man for GF&F, has a career that seems to consist of being temporarily relocated to buildings away from the main campus, each more distant and empty, where he has less and less to do. When he is sent a selection from the “girl pool,” a perky and positive-thinking secretary who is “a twinkling constellation of costume jewels,” he begins to see where true value lies.
In “The Nice Little People”, a downtrodden cuckold discovers a knife that may be a spacecraft containing tiny astronauts. Or he may be crazy. The story works either way.
The other stories are melodramas, shaggy-dog stories, warnings about the dangers of Stalinism and home-grown fascism. Some don’t really work, some do. As usual with this kind of posthumous book, it’s likely to be of interest mostly to those devoted to reading every word the author wrote.
For the less fanatical, there are still those marvelous novels, in which Vonnegut took his middlebrow pop lessons and bent high-brow literature to them.