May 19, 2011

Book Review: 'While Mortals Sleep'

"While Mortals Sleep" by Kurt Vonnegut.
The publication of “While Mortals Sleep,” a posthumous volume of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, reminds us of how much we lost when he died in 2007.
In the introduction, writer Dave Eggers remarks about the loss of “a moral voice ... a very reasonable and credible—though not to say staid or toothless—who helped us know how to live.”
Possession of this type of voice is certainly one of the chief aims of literature. And who is not brought up short and found wanting when this lovable curmudgeon—Vonnegut himself—admonishes us, “Goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind.”
These stories were written in the beginning of his career and none of them have been previously published. They were written to sell, even if they didn’t. Vonnegut was desperately trying to leave his job as a PR man for General Electric when he wrote them as the great short story markets, such as Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post paid very well.
It is difficult to see why these shorts weren’t published, since, though they are surely minor Vonnegut, they are wonderfully readable and thought-provoking. Each of them bears the Vonnegut stamp and one cannot imagine them written by anyone else, even though he didn’t touch on any of his great themes: the sheer madness of humankind, the horror of war, his disgust with civilization.
Most of the stories are so good that they could serve as an introduction to Vonnegut for those who have never read him. And for those who are fans, they are a very welcome addition to the canon.
Most of these shorts have a surprise ending, which Mr. Eggers calls “mousetrap stories.” They lure us into their simple world and then come crashing down with the real nature of the enterprise, owing a debt to the stories of O. Henry and Saki.
In the title story, a crusty newspaper editor who loathes Christmas is forced by his publisher to be a judge in a contest for who has the most beautifully decorated house in the city. In the process, he gets a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas.
In “Jenny,” a technical wizard and traveling salesman has built a refrigerator that he has fallen in love with. It moves and dances and speaks in the voice of his ex-wife. Jenny is an idealized version of his ex, who has since changed and is seriously ill. Since he cannot face the real woman in her hour of need, the refrigerator serves as her proxy.
“The Epizootic” is a story about how great numbers of the population are committing suicide in order that their families can collect life insurance. They are, in the Vonnegut-esque phrase, “dying for a living.” In “The Humbugs” an abstract and a representational painter try to paint in each other’s styles in order to show how easy it is. Neither is capable of doing what they said they could do with ease.
In “Ruth” the title character is a pregnant war widow who introduces herself to her deeply disturbed mother-in-law, who is resolved to take from Ruth the baby—the only living connection to her dead son. The ending is so abrupt and moving that I will leave it up to you to read the story.
Some critics have dismissed these stories by saying that they were unpublished for a reason. But, in my opinion, that would be a mistake. They are, in fact, a small treasure-trove of immense value.
In these stories, Vonnegut’s inventiveness and his vision are irreplaceable. They remind us of the phrase by his son, Mark, who said, “We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.”
“While Mortals Sleep” is illustrated with drawings by Kurt Vonnegut. Though the images are totally unrelated to the stories, they are, in their own way as entertaining and darkly funny as his fiction. My recommendation for this book: buy it, read it and enjoy it.
"While Mortals Sleep," was published by Delacourt Press.

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