Sunday, August 02, 2015

10 Minutes About "Welcome To The Monkey House" by Kurt Vonnegut

I have the book To Rise Again At A Decent Hour on my Kindle, and having finished Footfall Saturday afternoon (SPOILER ALERT HUMANITY WON), I was looking for something to read today.  To Rise Again was sitting right there but while I am somewhat enjoying the book, it's not compelling.

So I went online to my library to see what was out there to read, and the first thing I found was California, by Eden Lepucki.  People may recognize her as the author who essentially won the writing lottery when Stephen Colbert, as part of Hachette's fight with Amazon, plucked her from obscurity and plugged her book on his show as well as having her on to talk about it.

Sweetie and I talk all the time about how luck plays a huge role in success, probably as much of a role as hard work.  I try not to be bitter about how some people get lucky and I do not, but sometimes it's hard not to be resentful. I won't read The Martian, for example.  It just makes me too mad: I wrote a story about an astronaut alone in space, too, I think, and wonder why The Martian gets made into a movie with Matt Damon while my book sells a copy every three months.

So I wasn't really thinking much about California but there it was, available, and I've wanted to read it: I was in the mood for more end-of-the-world books.  There are post-apocalyptic books a-plenty, but not many apocalyptic books, and Footfall was one of those and so I was in the mood for more read-about-it-while-the-world-is-ending-type stuff.  California isn't quite that, either.  So after I borrowed it, I kept on looking.  I borrowed a new book by Robert Asprin, too, The Adventures of Duncan & Mallory.  He's the guy that wrote the M.Y.T.H. Inc. series that I loved when I was much younger so I thought I'd give him a shot.

But I still wasn't sold, so I kept on looking and I came across Kurt Vonnegut.  Here is how: I started writing a story the other day and on the spur of the moment I decided that the story would be narrated by a ghost.  (It's a post-apocalyptic story, as it turns out.)  So I wrote the first few pages but today I kept thinking that I'd read a story narrated by a ghost before, and I was pretty sure it was a Vonnegut story.  So I googled story narrated by a ghost Vonnegut and found it: Galapagos, Vonnegut's take on Darwinism and evolution, in which the story is told by the ghost of the son of his fictional alter ego (?) Kilgore Trout, and the bad guy is the human brain.

I decided, anyway, to leave my story narrated by a ghost.  Vonnegut didn't patent that.

Galapagos isn't really a book I wanted to read, so I downloaded Welcome to the Monkey House, instead, a collection of the short stories Vonnegut wrote to get the money to pay for writing the novels he wanted to write.  I sometimes think it must have been far easier to be a writer back in the 30s or 40s or 50s, before everything got all splintered by cable and the Internet and Amazon.  But probably it was just as hard in a different way.

Anyway, Vonnegut wrote the introduction to these short stories, and in the preface he said some interesting things.  Things like:

I have been a writer since 1949. I am self-taught. I have no theories about writing that might help others. When I write I simply become what I seemingly must become. I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing. In the water I am beautiful.

I liked that, because it reminded me of back when I used to swim for exercise and I loved it because it felt like I was flying.

I began reading it right away. I was in a Vonnegut kind of mood, I guess, but unlike the sad scifi stories I read a while back from Saunders, these were not all sad and didn't depress me.  The stories I have made it through so far are:

Where I Live, which isn't Vonnegut-esque at all; it's kind of the story of a guy who stops by a New England town to sell some encyclopedias, but nothing much happens.  Despite that, the story is interesting and seems to have a momentum all its own, without going anywhere.  I liked it, and it's a good intro to the book.

Harrison Bergeron, which is more like what I expected: it's a terrible (in a good way) story of a future where everyone is noncompetitive, by force: the main character in the story is the father of the title character, and he is a smart man.  So to keep him from being smarter than other people, he must wear an earpiece that blasts a random loud noise into his head every 20 seconds.  He also wears a bag with 47 kg of pellets in it around his neck. Ballerinas wear bags over their faces if they are pretty, and weights to even them out.  In the story, Harrison Bergeron is taken captive because he is so extremely better than the others around him, and he escapes and gets onto the TV show his parents are watching, declaring himself to be the Emperor of humanity.  It ends badly.  The story is astonishing in the way that Vonnegut sometimes is.  It's like a gut punch: so much awfulness instantly and it just seems to keep on radiating out.  I loved it and will probably remember it forever.

I was once asked why I write so many sad stories. I hadn't thought I wrote that many of them, but I guess I do.  I think I write sad stories because it's a way to get out some of the stresses and sadnesses that are hard to express otherwise.  I worry about my boys, and am trying to (re)build a business, and have health concerns, and I want to help the older kids, and if you went around just all the time talking about how worrying those are, if you let the sadness overwhelm you at night as you lay there and try to read, you might never sit up again.  So I let it out in little doses in stories, and that helps me keep the happiness in charge.  I'm actually pretty happy most of the time.  I think it's because the stories I write let me let some of that steam out, relieve the pressure.

If that's true of me, it makes me wonder what was in Kurt Vonnegut that he would be able to write such terrible stories like this.  Here's another quote from his preface:

My only brother, eight years older than I, is a successful scientist. His special field is physics as it relates to clouds. His name is Bernard, and he is funnier than I am. I remember a letter he wrote after his first child, Peter, was born and brought home. “Here I am,” that letter began, “cleaning shit off of practically everything.” My only sister, five years older than I, died when she was forty. She was over six feet tall, too, by an angstrom unit or so. She was heavenly to look at, and graceful, both in and out of water. She was a sculptress. She was christened “Alice,” but she used to deny that she was really an Alice. I agreed. Everybody agreed. Sometime in a dream maybe I will find out what her real name was. Her dying words were, “No pain.” Those are good dying words. It was cancer that killed her. And I realize now that the two main themes of my novels were stated by my siblings: “Here I am cleaning shit off of practically everything” and “No pain.”

Let's finish this on an upbeat note. The other story I read today in the collection was Who Am I This Time? The narrator is a man drafted to direct the local play.  He decides to do A Streetcar Named Desire, and casts the best actor in town, a clerk at the hardware store who is a phenomenal actor but otherwise almost completely nondescript, fading into near nothingness when he is not acting, never mingling with people.  They also cast a beautiful woman who is in town for just 8 weeks, and who cannot act at all -- except when around the clerk.  Of course the woman falls in love with the clerk, but the clerk cannot relate to anyone when he is not acting.

So on the last night of the play, the woman gives the clerk a present: a copy of Romeo & Juliet.  She asks the clerk to read a part to her.  They act out a scene, fall in love, and get married, continuously acting out various romantic plays.

It's both happy and sad, but sad in the good way: it's people who have found a way to prosper in a life that would otherwise be dysfunctional.  Isn't that what we all do? We all have to find a way to fit ourselves into our lives, lives we have sometimes chosen and sometimes stumbled into by luck.  We have to find a way to make what we are fit what we have to be, sometimes.

Who Am I This Time? we might as well be asking ourselves every day -- and the story gives the lesson that rather than taking the role we were thrust into, we could opt to pick a new one for ourselves, and, having leapt into those shoes, walk seven leagues in them.

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