I’ve been thinking about these things as I tear through Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.” I first read it as a teen – Vonnegut was a kind of “gateway author” to harsher sci-fi stuff (Phillip Dick) and really harsh quasi-autobiographical sex stuff and profanity (Bukowski.)
I was most intrigued, as I recall it, by the playfulness of his writing. But I really dug the sci-fi-ish stories. Catnip for the teenage budding-dude. Stories about a dystopian future where sex-for-pleasure is illegal (“Welcome to the Monkey House.”) Stories about dogs who are more intelligent than humans (“Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog.”) Cool stuff.
And now, as I look back, very tame and – dare I say it – milquetoast stuff. Not in a bad way, mind you. But the stories lack a cynical core that we, in our older age, have become used to (good God, I just read “Freedom” and never have I encountered such vile, unlikeable people in all my travels. Of course I kept reading.)
But even the “bad” guys in “Monkey House” aren’t so bad. The evil Russian henchman who planned to kill POWs in “All the Kings Horses” (which was most likely not an influence of the Monkees song of the same name) didn’t really end up killing them.
The narrator who worried that his wife would leave him in “Go Back to Your Wife and Son?” He needn’t have worried at all. His wife was just out late shopping. She came home. Phew.
The proliferation of happy endings didn’t strike me as anything peculiar when I was 15. I just took them at face value. I didn’t have the perspective to do the math and realize most stories were kinda warm and fuzzy. Now, however, that current of sunny Midwest optimism coursing through most stories is so…quaint.
That isn’t to say, of course the stories can’t speak to you as an older, wiser, and more jaded adults. That also isn’t to say the stories are “optimistic.” Quite the opposite, in fact!
For example, the stories percolate with a weary pacifism articulated by a combat veteran – the best kind – that, of course, hits home after 13 years of perpetual war. (Ah if only Paul Wolfowitz took a creative writing class in college [or saw combat first-hand] instead of that 400-level Rand course.)
Vonnegut was also writing in the thick of the post-war economic boom – and the Ozzie and Harriet hyper-consumerism that came with it. While Ginsberg was happy to tell the Man to “go fuck himself [sic] with an atom bomb,” Vonnegut said, “Got a sec? Let me tell you a story about this guy I know…” It was a more nuanced (and polite – those Midwesterners!) approach. And more often than not it was equally effective.
“More Stately Mansions,” for example, depicts a cheery (yet insufferable) housewife obsessed with creating the most gaudy house on the block. When she finally gets her wish, she’s happy. Kinda?
Most tellingly, “The Euphio Question” presents us with a machine that provides instant, insatiable bliss. A happiness machine, if you will. Remember: the US is the only country in the world whose founding document, the Declaration of Independence, presents the “pursuit of happiness” as a core, indisputable “truth.”
Furthermore, the idea that a simple gadget can make us happy all the time was particularly prescient as we now live in a world where a term like “wearable computing” – whereby people keep a device on their person 24-7 – is casually thrown around and no one really pukes in their mouth.
I’ll blathering now, but the point(s.) One: Vonnegut knew things weren’t always hunky-dory. He just didn’t “come out once and scream it.”
Two: it’s fun to re-read stuff 15 years later and see how they make you feel. How you re-interpret stuff through the foggy, cynical lens of adulthood.
Why, in a previous post, we looked at Dylan’s unofficial reading list, and he noted in his older age that the younger, aimless Sal Paradise of “On the Road” didn’t really speak to him anymore.
When you’re 16, Sal is your god. When you’re 40 with a mortgage, you can’t help but scream, “Get it together, man!”
And with that, I’m outta here!