Joy, Complacency and Apocalyptic Future in ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories’

"So it goes" was a phrase Vonnegut used in Slaughterhouse Five as a sort of mantra, accepting chaos and embracing the possibility of wonder once darkness passes. It's a suitable way to end this embrace of Vonnegut's stories.

Complete Stories
Kurt Vonnegut
Seven Stories
Sep 2017

Consider the plight of the short story writer plying his trade for “the slicks”, a term for the magazine publishing industry that flourished from the ’30s through the ’50s, eclipsed only by TV and film entertainment. “The slicks” were magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and Colliers, printed on smooth glossy paper and aimed towards a more elite (white, upper-middle class, educated) clientèle. Add Esquire, Redbook, Playboy, and the audience remained dependable. The short story writer who worked his craft for one demographic knew that he could slightly re-shape it for another without losing time and money. In the glory days of the slicks, while the prototypical man in the gray flannel suit rode the train into the city from New Rochelle, the latest Argosy in his briefcase, the writer who knew what he was doing and understood how to play the game and view his mission as a craft more than a whimsical art could make a living for himself and his family.

It can be argued that this is a goldmine of potential opportunity rather than a plight, but it’s indisputable that churning out one formulaic story after another means their shelf life will be limited. Stories from the era (Vonnegut’s and others) are time capsules when men are white square-shooters and white women are there to serve and be seen. These stories reflected a reading marketplace where people consumed literary entertainment as a means of escape, a way to relate, a path towards understanding goals and how to reach them. This is how some could view the total experience of Complete Stories Kurt Vonnegut. Though he’d published five novels between his 1952 debut Player Piano and his 1969 breakthrough Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut was best known and appreciated for his short stories. He was able to make a living with what writer Dave Eggers calls his “moral stories”. For Eggers, these stories are gems, relics from a different time and place. “They tell us what’s right and what’s wrong, and they tell us how to live.”

Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 1965-1967, nurturing such future fantabulists as John Irving. He was a World War II Veteran, a former GE Employee, a writer who seemed to exist well in the margins and through his first handful of novels. After 1969, when at the age of 47 he was embraced by the anti-Vietnam War movement as a leading voice of dissent, Vonnegut fit well into the “New Journalism” school, reporting on such issues as war in Biafra and then President Nixon’s state of mind. His avuncular presence (a head topped by a thick mop of curly hair, a droopy moustache under his nose, pastel-colored suits, an ever-present lit cigarette) helped him comfortably assume the mantle of spokesman. He was as much a personality available for speaking engagements and raconteur demonstrations as creative writer, and while the consistency and quality of his work varied throughout his lifetime, Kurt Vonnegut was the only Vonnegut we could ever have imagined or wanted.

As a single volume, the Kurt Vonnegut completist could not ask for anything better than Complete Stories. It’s lovingly arranged by Klinkowitz (a literary critic and Vonnegut scholar) and Dan Wakefield (a writer and Vonnegut confidante) in eight sections: “War”, “Women”, “Science”, “Romance”, Work Ethic vs. Fame and Fortune”, “Behavior”, “The Band Director”, and “Futuristic”. The sources include the aforementioned “slicks”, Welcome to the Monkey House, Palm Sunday, and various posthumously released collections, like Bagombo Snuff Box . Of particular interest to Vonnegut completists and those simply interested in seeing stories that never made the cut, are the approximately half dozen titles taken from his papers and released here for the first time. They’re not necessarily the best of what he had to offer, but they’re good to see within the context of his entire collection. This is not Vonnegut’s Complete Sun Sessions, or Complete Basement Tapes. We don’t have to wade through multiple attempts at a single idea. All of the work exists in its final form.

Will the casual fan find anything of value in this book? A complete collection from anybody, running over 900 pages and a commitment to carry as well as store in any book case, requires dedicated attention from the reader beyond simply following the narrative. Fortunately, Jerome Klinkowitz and Wakefield are more than up for the challenge of presenting these stories with the hopes that readers will appreciate them in context. Those who might have only considered Vonnegut a writer of War and what it took out of a man will appreciate such pieces as “Thanaspere”, (September 1950), where the Cold War action takes place in outer space. “Just You and Me, Sammy” (published posthumously in 2008) opens with the straight-edged style typical of the era:

“This story is about soldiers, but it isn’t exactly a war story. The war was over when it all happened, so I guess that makes it a murder story. No mystery, just murder.”

In his preface to the “Women” section, Wakefield is clear-headed about Vonnegut’s ability portraying a population routinely relegated to a life as attractive eye candy and handservant supporting players to the leading men: “Vonnegut’s self-assessment as lacking the power to create credible women characters does not mean he is a woman hater.” There are the standard romances suitable for markets interested in such stories, but in those the women are passive, recipients of compliments and moves from typical ladykillers of the time. What works better are the stories like “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son”, where relatable portrayals of women like world-weary multiple divorcee Gloria Hilton are based on her actions rather than just good looks. These stories reflected a time when divorcees were seen as fallen women and their primary goal was to become a housewife. Of “Lovers Anonymous”, (1963), Wakefield makes a good argument that Vonnegut might be the first writer to have reflected (through his fiction) the effects of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. He calls the book in his story something else, but the reader gets the message:

“…When I gave my wife this book I gave her a magic bookmark to go with it,” I nodded. “That magic bookmark kept her under control all the way through.”

In the “Science” section, we get titles like “The Euphio Question” (1951), “EPICAC” (1950), and “Next Door” (1955), where the focus was less on a gape-mouthed amazement about the inventions themselves than how they can be integrated into middle-class life. Vonnegut had been employed by GE, where “Progress is our most important product.” He understood the risks of boasting too much, of assuming the notion of progress and productivity can be objectively and quantifiably measured. In “Confido”, a box takes on the story’s title name and temporarily assumes control of the humans who presumably should play that role. Nothing is as it seems or as it should be if we surrender control of our fate to gadgets and gizmos.

It might seem redundant to have afforded “Romance” its own section apart from “Women”, but there’s logic in the process. These stories tend to reflect more of the anachronistic black and white views of femininity and masculinity. Women are “….a flawless little trinket”, “…eighteen, petal fresh”, or they are doomed with a “craggy, loveless, humorless face”. “City” (1950), previously unpublished, is a stripped-down and unglamorous, natural two-hander featuring a man and woman waiting for a bus. They wonder if the one coming is theirs, and they take a chance to ride it and see where they’ll end up:

“The gloom of the city was suddenly washed away. There was all the clean, warm world, and the brightness of the future.”

For Vonnegut, “Romance” was not necessarily confined to issues of love and definitely not (considering the time period) instances of graphic assignations. Romance was idealistic. In “Who Am I This Time?” the actor Harry Nash takes on yet another persona for the community theater, proving he can meet the needs of any personality. It’s one of those sweet stories in Vonnegut’s arsenal (more about them later) which many may see as “corny” and “outdated”, but they work nicely within the context of his full vision. As Eggers put it in the preface, these were stories of moral foundation. Looking at them now, we can see they were as firmly rooted in the worlds of those great moralists Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan as in the neighborhoods of literary imagineers Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

The key to understanding section 5, “Work Ethic Versus fame and Fortune”, rests clearly in what Dan Wakefield concluded in his headnote:

“In Vonnegut’s world… it’s not just any kind of work that’s admired, but work that avoids the trap… the regimentation of corporations.”

It was within the world of post-WWII corporate struggles and success, malfeasance and back-stabbing glad-handing, that Vonnegut told his stories of class status and identity. In “The Hyannisport Story” (purchased by the Saturday Evening Post in late 1963 but never published after the assassination of JFK), Vonnegut’s storm window installer lives on the outside of the glamor Kennedy and his family represented in the area: “A man who sells storm windows can never really be sure about what class he belongs to, especially if he installs the windows…” There are issues of duplicity as a means to attain a higher class in “The Lie” (Saturday Evening Post, 1963), class as a role to play rather than an honestly earned position (“Any Reasonable Offer”, Colliers, 1952), and the struggle between the quest for idealistic goals and the demands a family makes on staying practical. “I haven’t got the right to be practical anymore,” the hero says in “Deer in the Works” (Esquire, 1955.) As so many other men of his era found, the urge for going (anywhere, everywhere, and somewhere) would have to wait or be directed in some other manner.

The “Behavior” section might be a little redundant. Vonnegut is still within the same areas of office politics and struggles between bland conformity and unpredictable dreaming. What we see within the predictable is what set Vonnegut apart from others. He loved salesmen as narrators, motivators, the human means to push forth ideals. They’re boastful and the reader can usually depend on the fact that they’ll get their punishments in the end. While these stories work well in a cluster (“Sucker’s Portfolio”, “Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog”, and “Bomar” in particular), the reader taking these outside the wider thematic context might get overwhelmed by the varieties of beige and grey. They don’t settle or resonate as well as Vonnegut’s early behaviorist novels Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, but they work well as a bridge to something stronger.

“The Band Director” is probably the most heartwarming section of this volume. It brings to mind such films as “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, where the music man could arrange a symphony, balance pitch with harmony, isolate and remove voices in a choir that are dragging down the score, and otherwise solve all problems. Vonnegut’s Band Director, George M. Helmholtz, is a portly man, jolly and stable:

“Life had treated him well. Each year he dreamed the same big dream. He dreamed of leading as fine a band as there was on the face of the earth. And each year the dream came true.”

To the surprise of nobody even minimally connected with the culture of the time, (as Dan Wakefield notes) Vonnegut was in the same English high school club in Indiana as writer Madelyn Pugh Davis, a woman who later became the head writer of I Love Lucy, that ideal of ’50s-era America. Davis thought of their high school times as wondrous. Vonnegut probably shared that sentiment, but what makes these Band Director stories stand out is their willingness and ability to deal with issues of the day, like teen delinquency in “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” (Saturday Evening Post, 1955.) The subject of possible rehabilitation is a troubled kid named Jim Donnini, and Vonnegut sensitively deals with the problems. In “The No-Talent Kid” (Saturday Evening Post, 1952) the title offers the essence of the plot, but Vonnegut makes it sweet. He’ll find a way for this kid to be part of the group. These are little slices of homespun drama that would not have seemed out of place as a variation of The Andy Griffith Show. Again, morals and expectations and “the right thing” are anathema to stories today, and to the bulk of Vonnegut’s post-1969 output, but they’re comforting in this context and would be effectively rendered as plays or short, inter-connected films given the ideal writer-director.

It’s in the final section, “Futuristic”, that the reader encounters arguably the strongest and most widely-anthologized story of his career. “Harrison Bergeron” (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1961) starts in 2081, when “…everybody was finally equal.” There was a balance in freedom of thought, appearance, intellect, and strength. The “United States Handicapper General” (Diana Moon Glampers, a character who re-surfaces later in Vonnegut’s work) made sure that citizens wore devices to weigh them down and restrict any individuality from surfacing. In “Welcome to the Monkey House” (Playboy, January 1968), there’s a world of nothingheads, ethical birth control pills, and suicide parlors. As usual with Vonnegut, something might be labeled “Futuristic” but the best term is probably “Speculative”. Here’s what may be the future truth if we don’t take action to change things in the here and now.

Those of us who came of age with Vonnegut in the ’70s collected his Dell paperbacks and conveniently slipped them in our back jean pockets as we went on our search for America. Aside from Welcome to the Monkey House and Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, collections of short stories and essays respectively, the small paperbacks we so dearly coveted were all novels. Complete Stories will not easily fit in briefcases or backpacks. Stuff it into your overhead compartment at your own risk. That said, this collection is an indispensable and beautifully presented survey of the sweet, nostalgic, dark, brooding, wondrous themes that swirled on the wide palette of Kurt Vonnegut. The archaic anachronisms in some of the “Women”, “Romance”, and “Relationship” stories are understandable and even excusable when balanced with the urgency and timeliness of everything else. “So it goes” was a phrase Vonnegut used in Slaughterhouse Five as a sort of mantra, accepting chaos and embracing the possibility of wonder once darkness passes. It’s a suitable way to end this embrace of Vonnegut’s stories. Complete Stories is a time-consuming commitment that rewards with celebrations of days long gone by and a doomed yet manageable future.

RATING 9 / 10