Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp”

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.

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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:

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The Package

This Son of Mine

A Night For Love

Ambitious Sophomore

The No-Talent Kid

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Runaways”

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”.

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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.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Der Arme Dolmetscher”

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.

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Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Unpaid Consultant”

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.

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Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Custom-Made Bride”

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.

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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.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Souvenir”

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.

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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.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Poor Little Rich Town”

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”.

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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.