This is the final installment of “Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut”. In “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp”, Vonnegut excellently portrays a married couple each of whom has no clue as to what the other one really wants.
Hal manages to build a lamp like Aladdin’s and hires someone to be a jeanie so that he can make his wife, Mary, think he is magically buying her a big house and an expensive car. In reality, Hal has made a lot of money on the stock market, of which his wife is unaware, and he is buying these things for her.
That’s where the misunderstanding comes in. Hal automatically thinks every wife should want expensive things; however, Mary is quite content to live simply. She would much rather hang out with her new friend – the person Hal hired to be the jeanie – who happens to be African American and an unwed mother. Befriending her, Mary, in some ways, makes up for the offensive way Hal treats the “jeanie”.
The fact that this story takes place in 1929 gives the reader a feel for what might eventually happen from a financial standpoint for both Mary and Hal.
This is by no means my favorite story from Bagombo Snuff Box but here are posts to the stories that are my favorites:
This Son of Mine
A Night For Love
The No-Talent Kid
“Sheila Hinckley is now a spare whitewall tire on the Thunderbird of my dreams.”
In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, several of the stories feature an unnamed narrator who is a storm window salesman for famous people. They include some of my favorite Vonnegut comedy. In his story “Lovers Anonymous”, a storm window salesman plays the part of narrator again; however, it’s a more personal story, no famous people show up, but the comedy is just as good.
While young, the narrator and some of his friends all have a crush on Sheila Hinckley, the smartest girl in school. They are all certain she will become a world renown scientist and never marry any of them. When she marries Herb White, the rest of the group infomally form Lovers Anonymous (LA). Fifteen years later, LA is still together even though they are all married. They still talk about Sheila Hinckley.
This is another story in which one can see a more liberating view of women starting to appear in Vonnegut’s writing. Herb becomes consumed with the fact that he has kept Sheila from being all that she can be, while Lovers Anonymous plays a part in helping him through this “realization”.
They left a note saying teenagers were as capable of true love as anybody else – maybe more capable. And then they took off for parts unknown.
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Runaways” compares in format to “A Night for Love”; however, this is the cynical and satirical version. Two teenagers supposedly in love leave town. The girl is the daughter of the Governor of Indiana and the boy, just out of reform school, is from the “other side of the tracks”.
One of my favorite aspects of Vonnegut’s writing is that he is willing to skewer everyone with his wit. In many of his stories, he tends to not take sides. Everyone is fair game. In the case of “Runaways”, he makes fun of parents, teenagers, Governors andpop music-not to mention rich people and poor people. The parents all have an “how dare you” attitude with the teenagers and with each other. The teenagers, while proclaiming their love to the media, obviously don’t have a clue what they are doing.
One of the funniest episodes in the story is a conversation that the boy and girl have with “each other”. It’s a long conversation taking the better part of two pages; however, they each might as well be talking to themselves as well as the other one listens.
Vonnegut is a true observer of human nature – one worthy of making fun of the whole human condition.
Moonlight is all right for young lovers, and women never seem to get tired of it. But when a man gets older he usually thinks moonlight is too thin and cool for comfort. Turley Whitman thougt so. Turley was in his pajamas at his bedroom window, waiting for his daughter Nancy to come home.
With all of Vonnegut’s great satire and cynicism, I’m always amazed when I read one of his stories that doesn’t contain these elements and realize what a wonderful observer of human nature he can be.
“A Night for Love” revolves around two middle-aged couples from either side of the “tracks” who are separately waiting for their kids to return from a date. Each has thoughts about what might have been with their own marriages; however, they also realize the difficulties of any marriage and understand that they really wouldn’t want to change anything. The process by which they come to this realization in one evening is truly inspiring story-telling and ranks this story as one of my favorites of the collection. When I’m finished with this series, I will post a list of a few of my favorite stories from Bagombo Snuff Box.
If I had to make one small little critique it would be that I would have rather not known about what happened with the kids’ date. The “coda” that Vonnegut adds to the story that explains this seems out of place. The date is better as simply a catalyst for the parent’s thoughts. Some of the these stories have changed for this collection from how they were originally published in periodicals (mostly in the 1950’s). I’m curious if this “addendum” to the story is a change or not. Either way, this story is still a favorite.
With “Der Arme Dolmetscher”, Kurt Vonnegut goes back to World War II, when the narrator becomes his outfit’s German interpreter or dolmetscher because he happens to know a song in German. All of the various attempts at translation provides for some great comedy. It reminds me of the episode of MASH where Hawkeye teaches Korean men to say “Frank Burns eats worms”.
I could attempt to put a liitle bit of meaning behind this story and discuss the way it’s revealed that the German soldiers with which the Americans come in contact are doing the same thing with English that the narrator is doing with German and that Vonnegut is making the point that the Americans and Germans have more in common than they do differences and that humanity as a whole shouldn’t have to fight wars because we’re all really in the “same boat”.
But I would rather stick with the comedy.
I didn’t realize Kurt Vonnegut put financial advisors into so many of his stories until these stories I’ve been reading this week. “Unpaid Consultant”, I admit, is a boring title. The story itself has some wackiness and charm, though. It sounds very familiar in form to “Custom-Made Bride”. The narrator starts by telling the reader that so many of his old flames come to him for financial advice and then continues by telling about a specific old flame.
Celeste Divine (another great Vonnegut name) is in need of some money-handling assistance as her career as a television star has taken off. When the narrator visits her at her house, she introduces him to her husband, Harry. Harry is laying on the floor thinking about ketchup. He is an unpaid consultant for the ketchup industry and is hilariously oblivious to the excitement of his wife’s fame. It’s all about ketchup:
Harry looked at me. “What do you call it? Catchup? Ketchup? Catsup?”
I always enjoy the way Vonnegut’s stories make the reader think “He’s got a point” or “I never thought of that”. In the case of this story, Vonnegut appears to say “there has to be somebody out there thinking about ketchup”.
Yeah. He’s got a point.
In “Custom-Made Bride”, Kurt Vonnegut explores the dark side of Pygmalion by telling the story of Otto Krummbein, a fashionable inventor, and his wife, Fallaleen. The couple’s financial advisor views the two through the lense of Otto being on the verge of bankruptcy. Until reading these stories this week, I did not realize how often Vonnegut uses business and finance people in his stories. Most of the time, they play the straight person to all the crazies living around them. In this case, though, a poignant ending lets the finance dude in on the couples’ realization that they do love each other even if Falloleen would rather be her real self, Kitty Cahoun.
The role of women in Vonnegut’s stories sometimes seems dated from the standpoint of the 21st century; however, in this 1950’s-placed story, one can tell he is at least taking a step toward the idea that women aren’t simply for makeup, dresses and jewelry. The story implies that all the money and fashion doesn’t seal the deal in a relationship. Something has to be there that is more honest and less shallow. I thought it a nice touch that this couple learns this lesson instead of being destroyed by the lack of it:
“Oh dear,” she said. “I’m starting to feel like Falloleen again.”
“Don’t be afraid of it,” said Otto. “Just make sure this time that Kitty shines through in all her glory.”
While I love the cynicism that Vonnegut is able to put into so much of his work, I enjoy his ability to provide a sentimental touch every once in a while.
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Souvenir” includes the presence of World War II that shows up in so many of his stories. In the case here, it comes in the form of a flashback that is told to a pawnbroker by a returning soldier.
Eddie takes a watch to Joe Bane to get an appraisal. While Bane attempts to lowball Eddie in the price of the watch, Eddie tells him about the day he and his friend Buzzer find out that the Allies have won the war:
The young farmer, whose name was Eddie, and his best buddy Buzzer walked out into peace and freedom skinny, ragged, dirty, and hungry, but with no ill will toward anyone. They’d gone to war out of pride, not bitterness. Now the war was over, the job done, and they wanted only to go home. They were a year apart, but as alike as two poplars in a windbreak.
Unfortunately, the two soldiers are in Germany at the end of the war among those who don’t necessarily understand or care that it’s over. Another wheeling and dealing ( as opposed to the one with the pawnbroker in the present time) among German soldiers ends tragically with Eddie maintaining possession of the watch – which by the time the story is finished – is understood to be of great value; however, Joe Bane has just made Eddie think it’s worth very little much to Bane’s detriment.
I like the way Vonnegut swaps “price tags” in this story. What is of real value isn’t known to anyone except the reader. The price tags placed on other things with lesser potential catches the eye of many of the characters in this story – and other Vonnegut stories, for that matter.
Newell Cady had the polish, the wealth, the influence, and the middle-aged good looks of an idealized Julius Caesar. Most of all, though, Cady had know-how, know-how of a priceless variety that caused large manufacturing concerns to bid for his services like dying sultans offering half their kingdoms for a cure.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Poor Little Rich Town”, we have another story with real estate although it’s more in the background than in “Any Reasonably Offer”. I’m not sure why Vonnegut is choosing real estate as a topic but he does it really well in another story from Bagombo Snuff Box, “The Package”. I would put it several notches above these two other stories. But back to “Poor Little Rich Town”.
Newell Cady has taken a job with Federal Aparatus Corporation (a vintage Vonnegut name) and proceeds to put into place all kinds of process-improvements and earns raves from his superiors for stamping out inefficiencies. Outside of work, Newell buys a house in Spruce Falls, the little town close by, where he meets neighbors, postal workers, firemen, etc. Here, he also insists on making things more efficient, including the annual Hobby Show. Cady begins to realize that not all aspects of life welcome extreme efficiency nor do they benefit from it.
Maybe the point Vonnegut is trying to make is that not everything needs to have a point or a goal or some sort of achievement to be worthy of admiration.
I don’t think Vonnegut’s writing always fits into specific genres or are structured using a certain formula. Many of Vonnegut’s stories are written from what I would call simply the joy of creating. This joy doesn’t always go hand in hand with efficiency.
It’s coming up on Banned Book Week for 2015 and this year, to honor the freedom I have to read what I want to read, I am reading the remaining short stories in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box. I began this collection back in 2012 and have slowly posted about each story that I’ve read. Since Vonnegut is one of my favorite advocates of free speech and freedom of expression, I figured finishing up these stories would be a good way to celebrate this upcoming week. So here is the first of ten posts.
As I’ve said numerous times on this blog (but it’s been a while so I’ll say it again), Vonnegut is known for his biting satire and social commentary in which it is not uncommon for him to use material and language that could be considered offensive by some; however, so many of his short stories have such a playful innocence, a twinkle-in-his-eye kind of fun and even sometimes what I might consider a “cuteness” that I find myself wondering how he could be considered so subversive and dangerous that various governing bodies feel the need to ban or censor his work.
In this first story, “Any Reasonable Offer”, a real estate agent bemoans his job and the people who use his services only to go behind his back to avoid paying commission:
…it occurred to me there isn’t any profession – or racket, or whatever – that takes more of a beating from its clients than real estate. If you stand still, they club you. If you run, they shoot.
The agent narrates the story and as with many of Vonnegut’s stories, the narrator is unnamed and the reader gets at least a slight impression that the narrator is a fictional verison of Vonnegut, himself. So much of Vonnegut’s work revolves around the absurdities of life and these aren’t lost on the realtor in this story. He attempts to sell a mansion to what appears to be a wealthy couple only to find that not all is as it seems with them. I enjoyed the ending where the realtor takes an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” response to the absurd.