In his introduction to While Mortals Sleep, one of two recent volumes of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction (the other one’s Look at the Birdie), Dave Eggers draws an interesting distinction between writers of Vonnegut’s generation and his own. “I was at least two generations removed from the days when a popular and literary short story would attempt to deliver a neat ending to a story, a conclusion that would cause the reader surprise and also recognition of a point made clearly and well.” Which is what Vonnegut’s short stories do, even these which, for reasons unknown, never made it into print. Despite subsequent generation’s scorn of pat conclusions and neat endings, they demonstrate there’s nothing wrong with these, in and of themselves, not if they’re done right. Which makes sense when you watch television, which is what came along and replaced the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine story market. Vonnegut was a moral voice, says Eggers, bravely sticking his neck out (Eggers, that is), and that allowed him to give his stories a point, to imbue them with a certain punch.
This moral voice isn’t even close to preachy—instead it evokes this humanist, compassionate world view. His narrative performances are always fluid, aware of their own drift in a sea of relativism, but always their captain keeps an eye on the compass. This moralizing without moralizing, this tightrope walk between the twin towers of “Post” and “Modern” allows him to create intricate miniatures which appeal to what it universally means to be human.
Derided as “pop lit.” by some, Vonnegut’s stylistic simplicity is just one of the tools that give his creations such clarity. And these are stories that for one reason or other didn’t make the cut, Vonnegut being for much of his career a roll up his sleeves and keep sending manuscripts out to the magazines so that we’ll be able to pay the mortgage sort of a writer.
Maybe some of them didn’t make it into print because they’re so disturbing and warped . . . but in a good way.
A fridge salesman creates an anthropomorphic cold box so convincing “she” becomes his surrogate wife. Another inventor manufactures a device that speaks into the ear of the wearer, telling them exactly what they want to hear in a story that seems to prophecy the pitfalls of mass media. Vonnegut seems to have a dark preoccupation with the loop between creations and their effect on their creators. And always he writes characters undergoing dramatic character transformations. Many reflect Vonnegut’s day-job career—at one point he was a P.R. man for General Electric, and episodes of corporate life, “The Girl Pool” and “FUBAR”, put you in mind of the hit show Mad Men mashed up with Catch 22 ‘s satire of bureaucracy. No pun intended. Other stories seem to play with and bend the Noir genre—Detectives investigating a hypnotist find themselves caught in a Borgesian paradox in “Hall of Mirrors”, visitors to a steakhouse owned by a good-old-boy mobster are caught in a Kafkaesque solidly Midwest maze of corrupt influence. Diehard fans will recognize certain Vonnegutian types, tropes, and themes: music teachers inhabit three of these stories, and with music surfaces Vonnegut’s views on talent and art. Art saturates “The Humbugs”, wherein two artists, one a lauded abstract-expressionist, the other a Bob Ross realist hack, are pitted against each other by their wives, each of whom thinks she has the more talented husband. The result is surprising yet oddly symmetrical. “The Humbugs” could be a study for Bluebeard, and many of the others fit neatly into the same worlds as Vonnegut’s novels, but they aren’t studies or sketches. Each is an intricate, self-contained reminder that before he became famous for Cat’s Cradle, he wrote short stories for money and he wrote them well, and that short stories like these, often written for mercenary reasons, were for decades deservedly popular entertainment in America.