Vonnegut Sleeps, but still manages to publish poignant, relevant fiction
While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut; pub date: 1/25/11
This is a great, fun read, although it deals heavily with moral dilemmas and the sad inability of family members and co-workers to relate to one another. The collection is part of a treasure trove of old stories that fell by the waste side as short story writing went out of vogue and Vonnegut dedicated his time to novel-writing, according to a recent interview on chuckpahniuk.net with Vonnegut’s longtime business partner and friend Donald Faber.
Although the stories brought me back in time, I could still relate to the challenges facing the characters. One story that struck me as being not only relatable, but also prophetic in its lesson was “Hundred-dollar kisses”. There was a lot of criticism of the workingman and woman in this assemblage, and here there is no exception. A man, Henry, losses his job after assaulting a co-worker with a telephone because he felt that this co-worker, Verne, “was what was wrong with the world.” All Verne wanted to do was look at pictures of women in trashy magazines, and as Henry explained to the detective questioning him at the police department, “Everybody pays attention to pictures of things. Nobody pays attention to things themselves.” In today’s social-network-obsessed society, this lesson echoes from the past. It’s easy to believe that the phenomenon of imagined relationships with ideas of people rather than actual people began with the advent of the Internet, but it was more likely a longtime coming.
Another story in this vein is “Jenny”. George Castrow was a refrigerator salesman who had a moving, talking, practically living and breathing refrigerator, which he carted around to supermarkets for sales calls. Long ago, he married a woman. He idealized her, but she left him when realized she would never live up to his standards. Heartbroken, he gave up on real women and Jenny, a robot whose every move he controlled, became the only woman in his life.
While the plots are intriguing, it is Vonnegut’s seemingly effortless and conversational prose that grabs readers, making fans of them. He never says or describes too much, just enough to put you in the moment he’s created. In the introduction, Dave Eggars captures perfectly the essence of While Mortals Sleep when he says “the stories…have the bright-eyed clarity of a young man just beginning to understand the workings of the world. You can almost imagine a kindly looking guy in a cardigan and penny loafers writing the stories in a malt shop, filling the juke box with quarters, typing happily away. But of course he wasn’t that. He was a man with kids trying to support his family while edifying the readers of Ladies’ Home Journal.”