By Kurt Vonnegut
Interesting. I just finished Welcome to the Monkey House. Two books ago I read Ape House. This is all part of my challenge to read books that refer to primates (other than humans) in some way. Next up: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It's all opposable thumbs, all the time here at My Life in Books!
Sitting down with a Kurt Vonnegut book is like easing back into your favorite chair to watch your favorite movie while eating your favorite snack food. After months of treading new ground, it's nice to sit back with something familiar. Something unsurprising and solid. Kurt Vonnegut (along with Tom Robbins and Salman Rushdie) are my Rushmore. They are my chicken soup for the reader's soul. They are my safety reads. Goto novels when I feel like I need a refresher on where I came from. I love to revisit these guys and I do so often.
All this revisitation is a bit of a Catch-22, though, because at last count I only have three more novels left before I have read Kurt Vonnegut's entire bibliography. With Robbins, it's one, with Rushdie, it's two. For as much as I read, I have never finished an author's entire career's work (well... except Harper Lee). And while I will be left with collections of short fiction, essays and opinions for all three authors once I complete their bibliographies, as Welcome to the Monkey House shows, this shall be problematic.
Welcome to the Monkey House is one such collection of Vonnegut's early short fiction that I can only assume was published in what he refers to in Breakfast of Champions as "beaver magazines"(actually, after a cursory look on the Wikipedia entry for the collection, most of these stories were first published in reputable sources such as Collier's, Ladies Home Journal and Esquire, but let's not mess with a good story). The stories are predominantly science fiction, although some decidedly not. As with most collections of short stories, the content of Welcome to the Monkey House is uneven. Granted it's the sort of uneven work created by Kurt Vonnegut, which means it's good. But it's still uneven.
Personally, I enjoy Kurt Vonnegut's more traditional science fiction over anything else. Science fiction was the genre in which Vonnegut rarely failed. This turned out to be true on this collection as well. I most enjoyed a story entitled "The Manned Missiles" (1955) in which the father of the first Soviet man in space writes a heartfelt letter to the father of the first American man in space. Their boys' missions, which culminated in each of them dying in space due to the aggression of their respective nations, culminates in a detente between America and the Soviet Union and hints at the end of the Cold War. The story has both heart and social relevance (at least on the date of publication). Furthermore, this story has relevance considering its optimistic view of the future. Many Vonnegut critics have accused him of being overly pessimistic.
The title story, "Welcome to the Monkey House" (which, incidentally is the only story in this collection actually published in what might be construed as a beaver magazine... Playboy) is the centerpiece of the entire collection. It explores the subject of sexuality and overpopulation. In an effort to de-populate the planet people have willingly been robbed of their sexual urges. Furthermore, people are encouraged to visit government sponsored suicide clinics where they are eased off this mortal coil by suggestively clad virgins. When she encounters a Billy the Poet, a man who has not ascribed to the new system, she is shown the nature of this life, which she deems "pointless."The story is rife with sexual and moral tension and is perhaps one of the best stories of Vonnegut's career.
In another excellent story Vonnegut lays out a story about Thomas Edison and his dog that may or may not be a lie to get away from an annoying small town story-teller. In another Vonnegut elaborates on one woman's pathological obsession with home renovation. In yet another he tells the story of the first computer to express human emotions and how it falls in love with a woman.
But there are a few stinkers in the mix here (and no Kilgore Trout anywhere in sight). Like the rockets on the early space program, some of these stories just never seem to get off the ground. They all have that signature Vonnegut style but just don't seem to get anywhere. As one would expect from a collection of an author's early work, the stories read like a young writer trying to find his voice. As a devout reader of Kurt Vonnegut, it was a pleasure to read the trajectory of his young writing and see the origins of the more mature writer that would emerge in the ensuing years. In that sense Welcome to the Monkey House is just as much a piece of literary history as it is a collection of short fiction.
But if you are new to Kurt Vonnegut, I would recommend you pass on this one for the time being and start somewhere more conventional: Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse-Five. As for me, I'm coming full circle. It's just about time I begin my way through Kurt Vonnegut's titles for the second time.
So it goes...