A look inside the ‘monkey house’

The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his later days.
Chris Chan

The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his later days. (www.mindspring.com)

I like introducing people to good authors, but I enjoy having people introduce me to great authors infinitely more. Over the last couple of years, numerous people have recommended the works of Kurt Vonnegut to me, and last summer I finally read an anthology of his short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. Well. I’ve never gotten such enthusiastic responses when people asked me what I was reading that day. My boss told me how he’s read and loved all of Vonnegut’s books. One of my coworkers told me that Vonnegut is her favorite author. Midway through the book, I was seized by one small, quiet pang of regret: that I hadn’t started reading Vonnegut earlier. Monkey House is filled with an eclectic mix of stories. Some are science fiction, others are adventure tales, a few are romances, and a number defy categorization. There are a couple stories that I just didn’t understand orenjoy. The title story, about a world where birth control pills that leave the lower half of one’s body devoid of feeling; and the last story, about a crowded world with a population kept immortal by a wonder drug; just left me unsatisfied. But the vast majority of the stories are gems. They’ve got everything I enjoy in fiction: subtle humor, finely crafted suspense, and enjoyable morals. Vonnegut has a wonderfully madcap way of looking at the world.

Among my favorites is “All the King’s Horses”, the story of an American military official who is captured by Communist forces, along with his wife, twin sons, and twelve of his enlisted men. The sadistic Communist leader proposes a way for the American officer to win freedom for himself and the fifteen people under his protection: a game of human chess. Every piece captured is immediately executed. The American official knows that he can’t save everyone, but he has to try and preserve as many people as possible, and all of his family. Vonnegut keeps the suspense at a breakneck pace, and he keeps the feeling of danger building.

Vonnegut doesn’t just find suspense in situations of life and death. “The Lie” is the story of an underachieving young man and his wealthy parents, who expect him to follow longstanding family tradition and enroll in a prestigious prep school. Trouble is, his application for admission has been turned down, by one of his family’s best friends, no less. It’s clear that the unpleasant secret won’t stay hidden for long, but Vonnegut keeps the reader guessing as to how the revelation will affect the family and the school. In the hands of a lesser writer this story would’ve been a pious platitude about the necessity of telling the truth. Vonnegut chooses to overlook the easy moral and explore the petty pride and unexpected reactions of the main characters. Acting correctly isn’t always pleasant, virtue frequently doesn’t pay, and reading morality tales can be excruciating, but Vonnegut made this open-ended tale utterly satisfying.

There are a lot more stories that are mandatory reading. A couple of them are about individuals trying to overcome the repressions of Orwellian governments. I also liked the gently loopy tale of a young method actor who gets a little too into his roles. Also not to be missed are some heartwarming tales of child-raising. In one, a moderately successful screenwriter tries to win his wife and son back after his disastrous affair with a Hollywood starlet. A handyman with unorthodox wisdom brings the family back together again. Maybe the most touching story is about two families, one American, one Russian, and how they are brought together once they both lose a son in a space exploration tragedy. Vonnegut’s not really considered a member of the academy, but he’s still one of America1s great writers.

I would like to give every quality story the in-depth analysis it deserves, but then this review would be several thousand words long, and I don’t want to alienate my editors. Suffice it to say, Vonnegut is one of the few writers whose work genuinely embodies that nauseating chestnut “It makes you laugh? and think!” That phrase annoys me, but it’s apt. Anyway, I can only rave about an author’s talent for so long. Just read some of Vonnegut’s books already.