Books

The Early Works of America's Most Unconventional Storyteller: 'Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950-1962'

These early works of Kurt Vonnegut are interesting for the sparkles of inventiveness they display—and, at other times, for their relative conventionality.


Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950-1962: Player Piano / the Sirens of Titan / Mother Night / Stories

Publisher: The Library of America
Length: 834 pages
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-04
Amazon

Like many people, I discovered Kurt Vonnegut in high school, responding immediately to his mix of lowbrow humor, a disarmingly accessible writing style, and serious thematic concerns. Encouraged by Vonnegut's wry narrative voice, pop-culture sensibility and absurdist humor, I eagerly devoured books like Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, Hocus-Pocus, Slapstick and Galapagos, This was in Vonnegut's '70s heyday, when his novels found an appreciative and loyal audience.

Not everyone was a believer, of course. I remember reading a review of Galapagos in Time magazine that ended with the supremely unenlightening line: "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like." The passing decades may have blurred my memory somewhat, but even as a snotty teenager I remember thinking that this was a supremely lazy way to write a review.

No matter. Vonnegut's place in the pantheon of American letters is solidly etablished by now, five years after his death and 15 years after the publication of his last novel, 1997's Timequake (a rather dodgy novel at that, even by Vonnegut's nonstandard standards). One measure of his canonization is surely the release of The Library of America's handscome, hardcover volumes of his writing. Volume I covers the years 1952-1962, and inludes three novels and a handful of short stories. These early works are interesting for the sparkles of inventiveness they display—and, at other times, for their relative conventionality.

Player Piano strikes this reader as a literary response to George Orwell's 1984—published just four years previously—with its vision of a joyless dystopian future of displaced workers and overbearing mechanical intelligence. Paul Proteus is this book's Winston Smith, no proletariat worker but a member of the technocratic elite who begins having doubts about the wisdom of the established order. What's most noticeable about this story, though, is its relative familiarity. There's little here that hadn't been a staple of conventional science fiction for years already, and the writing style is, frankly, rather dull. Vonnegut's sly humor and mischievous twinkle isn't very much in evidence. Instead, the tone is one of rather plodding seriousness.

Moreover, the characters tend to operate as stand-ins for various philosophical points of view, with the women characters being especially weak. It's tempting to credit Vonnegut with satirizing the limited role of women in professional society—the grasping wife, the gossipy secretary—but I suspect that's a rather generous reading.

Things get a lot more interesting with his second novel, The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut announces his intentions on the very first page: "Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself," the reader is told in the book's opening lines, "But mankind wasn’t always so lucky… The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression." This opening salvo immediately reveals the elements that would make the author so beloved: a fearless willingess to tell stories on a cosmic scale while simultaneously keeping tongue in cheek. The Sirens of Titan tells a multi-stranded tale that incorporates time travel and interplanetary warfare side by side with a family drama and no small amount of pointed social commentary. It's an effective combination.

Mother Night completes the trio of novels contained in The Library of America volume, and it's one of Vonnegut's odder stories. Trying to do something that few authors dare—to write a comic novel about Nazis—Vonnegut weaves a tale of one Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American-born Nazi collaborator who lived in Berlin during the war and worked as part of Goebbel's vociferous propaganda machine. Except that it's not that simple: Campbell now claims he was an American agent working in Germany at the behest of the CIA, sending out coded messages in the form of his radio-broadcast anti-Semitic rants. Is he telling the truth? It's an open question, especially considering that Campbell is currently sitting in a cell in Israel, awaiting trial.

Mother Night introduces another technique that will become common in Vonnegut's later novels: the choppy, disjointed structure. Given that the story itself doesn't contain oodles of plot in the conventional sense of the word, it's probably a good idea for the author to introduce suspense and narrative interest via this technique. This 180-page book contains 45 separate chapters, many only a page or two long, which allows the narrator—and the author—to bounce from incident to flashback to (apparent) non sequiter. This being Vonnegut, the pieces will always ultimately cohere, but as in The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night requires that the reader exercise some patience before the picture becomes clear.

Also within in this volume is a selection of short stories, which contain some of the most compelling writing here. "Harrison Bergeron" is a knockout of a story, a vicious satire of political correctness before that phrase even existed. It's also interesting to see how the central element of "Harrison Bergeron"—the legally mandated equalizing of all human talents--is hinted at, to a much lesser extent, in The Sirens of Titan.

Other stories are strong too. "EPICAC", "Unready to Wear", and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" use the conventions and clichés of science fiction to level scorched-earth amounts of social commentary concerning consumerism, religion, race relations and anything else that dares to show its face. Only six stories are contained here, totaling fewer than 70 pages. A few more such stories would have made this an even stronger package.

So then: none of these three novels is Vonnegut's best, and none of them is the one that I would recommend as a starting point for exploring the writer's ouevre—that would be Slaughterhouse-Five. However, all three are engaging enough, and all contain elements uniquely Vonnegutian (if that's not an adjective, it should be). The Sirens of Titan is probably the pick of the litter here, although the short stories should not be overlooked.

Ultimately, this sort of ranking is probably moot. Vonnegut has been established as an American treasure. Anyone interested in lively, unconventional storytelling owes it to him/herself to read something by him. Or re-read: as my own experience suggests, there is likely to be more to Vonnegut than we may remember.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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