Welcome to the Monkey House

I’ve come to greatly appreciate the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut.  Here are some ramblings about his short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.  

Welcome to the Monkey House

In an introduction written by Vonnegut’s son for another book, he states that his father was an optimist trying to be a pessimist.  I continue to find this to be the best way to describe Vonnegut’s work – especially his short stories.  In spite of some biting satire aimed at the world we live in and at institutions cherished by many, the twinkle in Vonnegut’s eye seems to always make its way into the stories.  Though world-weariness often takes the stage, the innocence of Paul, the boy trying to bring his fighting neighbors back together through a radio dedication in “Next Door”, never seems far behind.

For sheer comedy, I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when Vonnegut’s storm window salesman-narrator pays a call on Commodore Rumsfoord, a Goldwater Republican who lives next door to the Kennedy Compound in “The Hyannis Port Story”.  On his way there, he stops at the First Family Waffle Shop where the menu items are named after the Kennedy family.  He has “a thing called a Teddy – and a cup of Joe.”  The same storm window salesman installs a bathtub enclosure (because storm window salesman do that, too, as he points out) at the home of Gloria Hilton and George Murra in “Go Back to your Precious Wife and Son”.  While both of these stories have characters that date them in the early 1960’s, the comedy and humor is timeless.

I personally enjoyed the character of Harry Nash in “Who Am I This Time?”.  While a mild mannered hardware store clerk, he quickly turned into whatever character he needed to be when auditioning for the community theater – and helped his fellow thespians find their characters, also:

When he faced us again, he was huge and handsome and conceited and cruel.  Doris read the part of Stella, the wife, and Harry bullied that old, old lady into believing that she was a sweet, pregnant girl married to a sexy gorilla who was going to beat her brains out.  She had me believing it too.  And I read the lines of Blanche, her sister in the play, and darned if Harry didn’t scare me into feeling like a drunk and faded Southern belle.

One of Vonnegut’s stories that I’ve heard others talk and post of frequently in the past as being one of his best is “Harry Bergeron”,  a funny story with some more serious undertones.  He brilliantly has the government controlling exceptionally intelligent people by planting in them a hearing device that blasts loud noises into their ears to distract them from thinking anything too intelligent.

A couple of his more serious stories included “All The King’s Horses” , where a Colonel is forced to play chess with his troops and family as live chess pieces.  While their lives were on the line, I still couldn’t help but chuckle at the situation where chess pieces could literally question the Colonel’s moves.  “The Manned Missiles” touchingly presented two letters from fathers who had lost their sons – one father was American and one was Russian.

I found “Adam” to be the most poignant of all the stories.  Heinz Knechtmann’s wife gives birth to their first son; however, he has no one with whom to share the happy news as the rest of their families were killed in Nazi concentration camps.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where loneliness is portrayed quite this way.  I’m still not sure, though, about the significance of the title.  The baby is named Peter.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”.  Another story about the incomparable George M. Helmholz, the Lincoln High band leader.  As the title implies, Helmholz uses his love of music to help a troubled youth from his neighborhood.  A line from this story beautifully describes why Helmholz appeals to me so much:

And then, Jim, I remember I’ve got one tiny corner of the universe I can make just the way I want it!

This collection includes a total of twenty-five stories all written in the 50’s and 60’s.  I read them all within a few days, unlike Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box, which I’ve read a few stories at a time and with which I’m still not finished.  It brings up a question about short story collections:  is it better to read them all at once or separately?   I may have to read Welcome to the Monkey House again – only this time read it a story at a time.  Each one was so good, I want to appreciate it by itself.  Does anybody have any suggestions as to when to read short stories individually and when to read them as a collection?

 

 

Advertisements

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

10♣  10♣  10♣  10♣  10♣  10♣  10♣

“Hills Like White Elephants” represents another example of the depth to which Ernest Hemingway can take a short conversation.

A man and a woman waiting at a train station in Spain have a discussion.  True, the discussion isn’t a light topic, but in the course of very few words, a couple beers and liquor that tastes like licorice, Hemingway reveals that their relationship is crumbling.  No resolution can be found.  Regardless of the decisions they make, their world will never be the same – except for perhaps the hills.  They look like elephants – white ones.

The Complete Short Stories

Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence

What thou dost do quickly.

This phrase that Jesus spoke to Judas Iscariot at The Last Supper haunts seventeenth-century Catholic priest Sebastian Rodrigues in Shusaku Endo’s mesmerizing novel, Silence.  Rodrigues travels from his native Portugal to Japan to spread Christianity and investigate the rumors that a revered teacher has aposticized, or denied his faith, at the threat of torture from Japanese officials.

He hides with other Japanese Christians in small villages by the sea.  As they are betrayed by a friend, Rodrigues is imprisoned and witnesses the horrific torture of those who have helped keep him hidden.  While in prison, he discusses the religious conflict and  cultural conflict of the East and the West with his prison guards and the magistrate in charge of the torture, all the while, wondering why God remains silent throughout his ordeal.

As both Japanese and Catholic, Endo manages to create an odd respect between Rodrigues and his captors.  While these ideas were fascinating, the personal thoughts of Rodrigues as he waivers between faith and doubt in the face of human cruelty were even more intriguing.  From God’s seeming silence, Endo paints a spiritual journey that is less contemplative and more harrowing.

“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”

Q♥  Q♥  Q♥  Q♥

I didn’t think J. D. Salinger’s short story “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” lived up to its catchy title.  It also could have been called “Meeting Strangers While I’m Sitting Alone In My Friend’s Living Room”.

Ginnie Mannox has insisted on waiting in the living room of her tennis partner, Selena, with whom Ginnie has become fed up because Selena always leaves her with the full cab fare.  Selena, making numerous excuses, goes to get the money at the risk of waking her “sick mother”.  While Ginnie is waiting, she separately meets Selena’s brother, Franklin, and his friend, Eric.

Salinger’s writing elevates the two conversations to full-fledged “encounters”.  I’d call it small talk with a little edge.

For those Salinger aficionados out there, feel free to explain to me the significance of the chicken sandwich.

Starship Troopers

“The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure” reads the cover of my edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  Heinlein doesn’t pull any punches with this story and whatever controversy surrounded it, it’s probably as applicable today as it was when he published it in 1959.

Starship Troopers

Juan “Johnnie” Rico goes to high school in a world where democracies have bit the dust. The world in which he lives, the Terran Federation, which includes Earth, only allows one to vote after they have completed time in the military, deters crime through public floggings and requires high school students to audit a class called History and Moral Philosophy.

My initial instinct tells me that the controversy surrounding the novel develops from Heinlein’s apparent criticism of democracies as in his future world they have gone by the wayside.  I’m not convinced, though, that he was truly criticizing democracy as a way of government and even if he was, criticizing democracy is not necessarily the same as being anti-democracy.  Heinlein’s ideas tend to be more critical of how citizens had let their democracies deteriorate.  In his world, these democracies failed as a result of the citizens being more concerned about their own individual rights than they were about the good of the whole.  They expected freedom simply to happen.  Heinlein goes to great lengths to prove logically that this freedom will always cost something and will always require honor and responsibility in defending it.  One of the more interesting ideas comes from Johnnie Rico’s History of Moral Philosophy class.  In discussing the Declaration of Independence, a student asks about the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.  The teacher, a formal Army Colonel, lashes out with the response (I’m paraphrasing) that the pursuit of happiness is indeed a right, but the guarantee of its attainment is not.  For me, this illustrated the point that many people who find ideas controversial haven’t actually taken the time to think about them.

Other ideas and questions bombarded me throughout this story.  It might be easy to line Heinlein up with a conservative political philosophy; however, I’m not sure he and Ayn Rand (a foundation of conservative thought) would necessarily share the exact same ideas. I’m curious what it would be like to be in a room with the two of them.  After thinking about his thoughts on democracy, I had to ask myself what type of government had he created with the Terran Federation?  I can’t call it totalitarian, though some might.  Could it be called authoritarian?  Maybe, but I’m not sure what that means. Did he create a new type of government?  Could be.

The novel also works on a character level where we get to see Johnnie Rico mature as a person and a soldier.  I enjoyed his narration and the ideas he threw around.  Most of Heinlein’s ideas are told through Johnnie reminiscing about lectures from his high school History and Moral Philosophy class.  His relationships with his equals and his superiors kept me intrigued.  Calling a story “coming-of-age” seems cliche, but there was a little of it here.

Of course, with much science fiction, there were also some parts of the story that were just plain fun.  It’s easy to get caught up in the spaceships and the amazing space suits that the Mobile Infantry wore and the war with alien Bugs – giant bugs who lived in giant underground tunnels.  The final battle scene had me on the edge of my seat.

Have you ever read Starship Troopers?  What do you think of Heinlein’s philosophy?  And how would you describe the type of government he created in this novel?

More of Willa Cather and her Artists

3♣   3♣   3♣

When all is said and done, I think I’m ready to leave Willa Cather’s New York City and visit her Nebraska or New Mexico.  I have to confess that after reading my third short story in a row by Cather, “Flavia and Her Artists”, I’m growing a little weary of Cather and her artists.

Cather writes brilliantly and the way she captures the details of her characters can be truly amazing.  In this story, Imogen Willard visits an old friend, Flavia Hamilton.  Flavia has a thing for artists.  Artists with names like Frank Wellington, William Maidenwood, Jemima Broadwood, Emile M. Roux and Frau Lichtenfield visit Flavia’s home on a frequent basis. Imogen has a thing for Flavia’s husband, Arthur, whom she knew when she was a young girl.

The bulk of the story revolves around the artist’s thoughts and ideas about many things including what might be considered inappropriate art for children and the role of women in the art world.  While a few of their ideas are worth thinking about (such as the ones I just mentioned), much of their conversation simply becomes arrogant and pretentious.  The thought did occur to me that this may have been Cather’s intention.

Imogen gets caught between Flavia and Arthur’s relationship, but it’s not how one might think given Imogen’s infatuation with Arthur.  In fact, Flavia and Arthur’s marriage probably is one of the more interesting aspects of the story – it seems to be a real marriage where good and bad combine.  Imogen’s “interference” doesn’t seem to change any of that.

I have two more Cather short stories in my Deal Me In: 2013 project.  I’m hoping the luck of the draw gives me a little break before I read them.

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

SPOILER ALERT!!

In the film Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Peoples endeavors to read Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms in order to prove to his estranged wife that he is trying to “better” himself.   Personally, as much as I enjoy Hemingway, I don’t think I would look to him with my marital problems.  However, the actor Bradley Cooper puts so much passion into Pat’s character as he reads, one can’t help but hope something good might come of it.  But  as Pat comes to the end of the novel, his eyes get big, his face clouds over with anger, he slams the book shut and yells one of the better uses of the WTF phrase that I’ve heard in a movie.  He then procedes to throw the book through a closed window where it lands in the middle of the dark street in a pile of shattered glass.  After the police leave, he spends the evening ranting and raving and pacing in his parents’ bedroom, telling them that the world needs more happy endings.

A Farewell to Arms

After re-reading A Farewell to Arms, I couldn’t help but be sympathetic to Pat’s meltdown even though I enjoyed the novel and, as always, Hemingway’s writing leaves me speechless sometimes.  I have a long-running idea that I throw around to my wife and kids about fictional romances.  I find stories more romantic when the couple doesn’t end up together, and if one or both of them die, it makes for an even better romantic story.  I always stress that this theory only works in fiction.  As I finished reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that I may have stumbled upon a story where my theory gives out.

Frederick Henry, an American in the Italian army during during World War I, begins a relationship with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.  These characters are strong enough in their own right to make me want to know what happens to them; however, they seem very much removed from the world around them.  I thought “Yes, that’s what it’s like for them!” when Catherine made this remark:

“Because there’s only us two and in the world there’s all the rest of them.  If anything comes between us we’re   gone and then they have us.”

Hemingway’s other comparable novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises include romances, but they are somehow a part of the world around them.  It’s not “just the two of us”.  In spite of the great descriptions of the Swiss village to which they run away, descriptions that made me want to run out and eat Swiss food and drink German beer, I couldn’t help but think this isn’t the way it is, it’s not going to last.  And of course it doesn’t.  Early on, Catherine discloses to Frederick that she has had a premonition that she will die in the rain.  It rains during the entire book!