Although this book was compiled in 1999, it contains the author’s early short stories, published in magazines in the 1950s and ’60s. It was not an easy or a fast book to read but it was powerful and it made an impression. I won’t re-read it; it didn’t give me much pleasure, which is why 4 stars instead of 5 stars, but I’ll remember it.
The stories are all about a small man in America. A couple stories have a scifi slant, but their speculative flavor is unimportant. The spotlight in all the stories is on a real man in the real postwar USA. No stories deal with a female protagonist, and most males on display are so life-like and pathetic, it hurts to read about them. Literary recognition is seldom pretty.
All the human foibles – greed, vanity, ambition, envy, misplaced loyalties – and all the vulnerabilities – loneliness, ignorance, shyness – are bared to the readers. There are no heroes or villains in this book but lots of silly men, misunderstood men, and presumptuous men. Some want to pay the world for ignoring them. Others are resigned to their fate, which is much, much smaller than they had dreamed about.
‘The shattered dreams of America’ could be a subtitle for this book, which includes stories sad and funny, tragic and twisted, but beyond all, believable. It could’ve been me (well, not me, I’m a woman). It could’ve been you or your cousin or your classmate. It’s about us.
And we are as different as the heroes of these stories. Some of them are extremely narrow-minded but come to realize and regret their own pettiness. Others are absorbed in their work to the detriment of the living people around them. Still others are making mistakes but not making connections. The theme of misunderstanding – between fathers and sons, wives and husbands, teachers and students – runs through the stories like a binding thread.
I made a conscious decision not to comment on any particular story, but I’d like to mention one character, a high school music teacher. He appears in three stories and he is probably the most likable of the protagonists in this book, at least for me. His passion for music is rich and rewarding, but his blindness to the human needs of his students is appalling. He is made of contradictions, like all the other characters in the book.
The introduction by the author is just as fascinating as the stories. In it, he talks about the origins of this collection, about his checkered life and literary career, and about the present times (1999) which was so different and so similar to the times he wrote about.
He writes about Ray Bradbury:
Fahrenheit 451 was published before we and most of our neighbors in Osterville owned TVs. Ray Bradbury himself may not have owned one. He still may not own one. To this day, Ray can’t drive a car and hates to ride in airplanes.
In any case, Ray was sure as heck prescient. Just as people with dysfunctional kidneys are getting perfect ones from hospitals nowadays, Americans with dysfunctional social lives, like the woman in Ray’s book, are getting perfect friends and relatives from their TV sets. And around the clock!
Ray missed the boat about how many screens would be required for a successful people-transplant. One lousy little Sony can do the job, night and day. All it takes besides that is actors and actresses, telling the news, selling stuff, in soap operas or whatever, who treat whoever is watching, even if nobody is watching, like family.
“Hell is other people,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell is other real people,’ is what he should have said.
What a pessimistic outlook at our lives. And so close to home, I want to curse.
Vonnegut also gives here, in the introduction to this book, his famous 8 rules of writing fiction:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
He also admits that most good writers break most of his rules, except maybe the rule #1. This book didn’t break that rule.
One critic called Vonnegut “the Mark Twain of our times.” I agree.