OCTOBER 15, 2017
ON OCTOBER 28, 1949, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his father as follows:
I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future.
I think I’m on my way. I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God.
I’m happier than I’ve been in a good many years.
This letter — which first appeared publicly in Vonnegut’s “autobiographical collage” Fates Worse than Death (1991), and is quoted in the editorial material of the newly published volume Complete Stories — may strike the contemporary reader as one of the most improbable narratives Vonnegut ever devised. The idea that by selling five short stories a year an author could earn as much as a publicist at General Electric (Vonnegut’s day job at the time) seems to come not just from another era, but from another planet. Incidentally, the word is (i.e., it says so on Wikipedia) that Collier’s bought his second story for $950. To get a sense of these amounts in today’s money we should multiply by 10.
That first short story was “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” and it’s a great one, straight off the bat, full of what we’ve come to know and love about Vonnegut’s writing. Arthur Barnhouse is a scientist who has the ability to destroy matter with his mind. The US military expects him to use his powers against weapons belonging to his country’s enemies, but he’s a multilateralist and he destroys all weapons, regardless of which side they belong to. Complications inevitably ensue. The prose is plainspoken, droll, and immediately engaging. The story has an element of wild fantasy, although the characters are all too human, and it contains a powerful antiwar message. To say it’s “typical” Vonnegut sounds reductive, but the story remains surprising and subversive, and of course extremely current, nearly 70 years after it was written.
Although “Barnhouse” was Vonnegut’s first published work of fiction, Complete Stories contains one written before that, from 1947. Titled “Brighten Up,” it’s about wheeling and dealing by US soldiers in a German prison-of-war camp during World War II. It’s another good one, though Vonnegut couldn’t get it published at the time, perhaps because it shows the US military as less than saintly. It first appeared in print in 2008 in a posthumous collection titled Armageddon in Retrospect.
Seen from our present viewpoint, those two early stories might be thought of as a blueprint for Vonnegut’s subsequent obsessions, but the writing life is never so simple. As is often the case, Vonnegut’s ambition to write preceded knowing exactly what he wanted to write about, and so the early stories head off in many directions as he tries a little of this, a little of that. There are quite a number of stories dealing with war, of which more later, and a considerable number involve a fantasy or science-fictional element. In “Confido,” a man invents a device that allows your own thoughts to talk to you. In “The Drone King,” a man invents a communications system operated by bees. We find a bit of O. Henry here, a touch of Damon Runyon there, even some hints of early John Cheever. Vonnegut isn’t writing to a formula, but he is trying to break into a market, writing stories suitable for the “slicks”: the likes of the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Redbook. “Slick” referred to the glossy paper the magazines were printed on, but it often describes the nature of the fiction too, even Vonnegut’s. The least successful of his stories seem too glib, as in “Tango,” where a rich, pampered young man discovers “the savage in himself,” rejects his privileged background, and runs off with the upstairs maid.
Vonnegut got a lot of stories published in magazines, but a lot were rejected, too. He just about made a living from his short stories, along with his early, only modestly successful novels, and when things got really tight he went to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gradually however, he moved from the world of the jobbing writer to that of the serious man of letters. In 1967 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1969 published Slaughterhouse-Five, the book that changed everything for him. It was a best seller, a critical success, and a countercultural phenomenon, with the money from the movie adaptation the icing on the cake.
After Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut no longer needed need to write short stories, so he didn’t; in any case, the market for them was drying up. The last short he had published in a magazine was “Welcome to the Monkey House,” in Playboy in 1968. By my reckoning, his last story to be published outside one of his own collections, appeared in 1972 in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions. It was titled “The Big Space Fuck.” He’d come a long way from Collier’s.
Keeping track of Vonnegut’s short stories is not an easy business. Depending on how you count, he published two or three volumes of short stories in his lifetime, with a good deal of overlap: all but one of the stories from Canary in a Cat House (1961), for instance, later appeared in Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). The one left out was “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp,” a pretty ropey thing about money not buying happiness, with some casually naïve asides about race relations. Vonnegut must have had his reservations about it, because he rewrote it for Bagombo Snuff Box (1999), a gathering up of stories that had appeared in magazines but not in book form. By this time, he hadn’t published a new story in over 25 years. In that volume, you’ll also find an essay titled “Coda to My Career as a Writer For Periodicals” in which he tells us that two other stories — “The Powder-Blue Dragon” and “The Boy Who Hated Girls” — were similarly rewritten. He described these stories as “literary fossils,” although “[a]s fossils, they are fakes on the order of Piltdown Man, half human being, half the orangutan I used to be.”
The editors of Complete Stories have found five more unpublished fossils among Vonnegut’s papers at the Lilly Library in Indiana, bringing the total of extant stories to 98. Some of these are, unsurprisingly, slight, but one of them, “Atrocity Story” — about the gap between military justice and natural justice, and about how decent men are sometimes happy to let the enemy do some dirty work on their behalf — is terrific.
Organizing this mass of work is obviously a tricky business for an editor. Arranging them historically by date of composition strikes me as the best way, but apparently there is scant archival evidence of when the individual stories were written. Therefore, the editors, Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, say, in their introduction, that “the method in assembling these materials has been to group the stories rationally, according to their subject matter and approach.” Well, one man’s rational arrangement may be another’s cause for bafflement. The book is divided into eight sections, each with a headnote from one of the editors. Readers won’t be surprised to find sections labeled “War” and “Futuristic,” but they might be surprised by what does and doesn’t appear there: you might think that “Barnhouse” story could easily have fit into either of those sections, but in fact it appears in the one titled “Science.” There are sections titled “Women” and “Romance,” but all the romance stories certainly involve women, and many of the women’s stories involve romance. There’s a section called “Work Ethic Versus Fame and Fortune,” a perplexing title, not least because it contains the gloriously odd “Ed Luby’s Key Club,” a story which fuses elements of Raymond Chandler and Kafka — bad cops, corrupt officials, an impenetrable legal system, a hunt for a fugitive — and has some final twists that are as bizarre as they are unconvincing, but in which the matter of “work ethic versus fame and fortune” is not, to my mind, foregrounded.
There’s also a section titled simply “Behavior.” Klinkowitz writes, “Human behavior has always been a prime topic for fiction writers.” Well, yes. Pretty much all of Vonnegut’s stories might be included under that title, as for that matter could pretty much any story ever written by anybody. Still, one can’t blame a dead author for the foibles of his editors, and it’s good to have all of Vonnegut’s stories accessible and in one place at last.
Sudden immersion in the early work of Kurt Vonnegut, the kind of immersion that comes with reading your way through 900 pages of his short stories, reveals a world very different from our own — very much whiter for one thing — but by no means alien or unrecognizable. One way or another, the United States and its ideals, aspirations, and failures are always on his mind. His political concerns are, for the most part, as relevant as ever: environmental conservation, overpopulation, state control, and, of course, war.
Other early Vonnegut stories are far more domestic, and the world they depict does seem, some six decades on, a little bit square. The characters tend to be middle class, often with jobs in sales. They want to live in decent homes, and care about money and respectability above all. Relationships tend to be what Vonnegut very definitely would not have called heteronormative. Of course there are problems; people stray, betray each other, undergo adjustments and realignments, and naturally some relationships fail completely. But there’s always the sense that human companionship, and above all love, is the goal worth fighting for. In the story “Paris, France,” for instance, we meet three couples, one old, one young, one middle-aged, traveling on the train from London to Paris. The two older pairs appear to have terrible marriages, while the young couple are in the first flush of love. Later we see them all again — well, five out of six of them — on their way back to London. The older couples have found ways to reconcile, the young lovers have split up. You feel this could have been taken from one of those 1960s portmanteau movies, probably starring Cary Grant.
For obvious historical reasons, the women in Vonnegut’s stories would not call themselves feminists, though judging by their actions that’s what they are. They’re also invariably wiser and stronger than their male counterparts. In “Miss Snow, You’re Fired,” for instance, two men fall desperately in love with the same woman; neither has a clue who she really is, and she’s the one who’s smart enough to point that out. The one story where the sexual politics goes completely haywire is alas, one of Vonnegut’s best known: “Welcome to the Monkey House,” set in a future where the government controls reproduction, and the outlaw Billy the Poet “rapes” women into “liberation.” Even in 1968 this wouldn’t do. The fact that he wrote the story for Playboy somehow makes it even less forgivable.
Though not everything works, there are wonderful lines, sentences, and whole paragraphs throughout the collection; it is full of constructions that are funny, clever, and unexpected. In “Eden by the River” you’ll find: “The boy was seventeen, tall, still growing — as graceless as a homemade stepladder.” In “The Honor of a Newsboy,” the police chief is trying to solve a murder case: “He guessed Earl Hedlund had done it […] Estelle had told Earl to go to hell one night at the Blue Dolphin, told him off the way he’d never been told off before. Nobody had ever told Earl off that way because everybody knew Earl would kill anybody who did.” And from “The Big Space Fuck”: “In 1987 it became possible in the United States of America for a young person to sue his parents for the way he had been raised. This was not only an effort to achieve justice but to discourage reproduction, since there wasn’t anything much to eat any more.”
What even the best of the short stories don’t, and I suppose can’t, do is create the broad sweep and the sense of interconnectedness that’s present in Vonnegut’s novels. In Breakfast of Champions, for instance, my favorite work of his, we see how entangled are the fates of various classes and types of people. There is no us and them. The “fabulously well-to-do” businessman, the guy who runs the car dealership, the kid who sweeps up at the dealership, the cocktail waitress, and the pulp sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout are all destined to cross paths and have their lives changed, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The short story form doesn’t allow for that kind of breadth and complication, and that was what Vonnegut needed.
I think it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t be so fascinated by Vonnegut’s short stories, might not be reading them at all, if they hadn’t led to the greater achievement of the novels, and in particular Slaughterhouse-Five. There are 19 stories in the section labeled “War,” and the effects of war are felt in others too. A moral discomfort and ambiguity informs most of them. People in wartime, Vonnegut tells us, are selfish, corrupt, unheroic: that’s what war has done to them, but to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all. The distinction between the good guys and the bad guys is never simple or clear cut, but that’s not an occasion for cynicism, rather for even finer shades of moral distinction. In the story “The Commandant’s Desk,” a carpenter in Czechoslovakia is forced to build a desk for the occupying Russian commandant, but before he can finish it, the Americans arrive and a boorish army major requisitions the desk. It contains a bomb, and the carpenter is every bit as willing to blow up the US major as he was to blow up his Russian predecessor. The major leaves and is replaced by a new, generous, decent captain who saves the day. Generosity and decency seem to be the two qualities Vonnegut values most, even as he recognizes their fragility and rarity.
Reading these early war stories, it’s possible to sense that Vonnegut is trying to find a new way to write on the grand scale about war, but, like Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon after him, he needs to approach the subject obliquely, to find a MacGuffin. Even so, there’s very little here to suggest he would succeed in this by combining fictionalized autobiographical material with an improbable time-travel narrative as he did in Slaughterhouse-Five. Who could possibly have dared even to think such a thing was possible? The obvious answer is: A writer of genius. But if this collection of stories proves anything, it’s that genius never arrives fully formed. So it goes.