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January 27, 1969 - Image 3

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1969-01-27

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Today's Book Page leaves its usual formtat to present
a tribute-and, I suppose, a farewell-to Writer-in-Residence
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The reviews below are of four of Vonne-
gut's major works; the' two not presented are Cat's Cradle
and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. But space limitations are
space limitations, and you probably know about those two any-
way. The authors of all four reviews are members or former



has been disgusted by the pue-
rile minds of the technocrats,
who go to summer camp for
two weeks every year to build
team spirit, complete with uni-
forms and cheers. The camp is
the height of the absurd. The
ridiculous life he is living makes
Proteus restless, coupled with
his meaningless marriage and
his jealousy of his father, who
was the first national Director.
Paul is assured of success for
that reason alone, but he looks
away from the establishment.
What is most significant here
is that Proteus does not cross
over the bridge into the low-IQ
section of his town of Ilium.
N.Y., simply because he feels
compassion for the Reeks and
Wrecks; he h a s never really
thought about them very much.
Paul is attracted by the idea of
rebelling because something is
missing in his life, not theirs.
He grasps their cause when he
finds that they too are dissat-
isfied, stifled, restless.
Vonnegut, amplifies the theme
of Player Piano with adept.plot-
ting and language. At first, the
novel seems a straight attack on
mechanization, although the
suggestion of individual resil-
iency appears throughout the
novel in characters like Alfy.
Finally, at the very end of the
revolution the evidence piles up
and the reader realizes that Pro-
teus is going to fail, and more
importantly, why. The Orange-
O. machine is the climax of this
The author is also expert at
subverting the industrial cant

members of The Daily staff.-D.O
Kurt Vonnegut almost always
manages to place his characters
in painfully non-existent situa-
He does it in Cat's Cradle by
destroying the world. He does
it in Sirens of Titan by allowing
Mars to invade earth. He does
it in Mother Night with a World
That the Second World War
really did take place is probab-
ly the reason Mother Night is
Vonnegut's strangest noval. But
is it really so strange?
Suppose for a moment that
we were reading the book in,
say, 1920. What then? Might.
we not consider the Second
World War just one more crea-
tion of Vonnegut's superb ima-
What I'm getting at, of
course, is this teaser: Isn't it
less a commentary on Vonne-
gut that he wrote about WW II
than it is a comment on WW
II because Vonnegut wrote
about it?
Well, anyway...
The particular Second World
War which Vonnegut calls upon
for the context of Mother
Night is 'the usual one: Lots of
dead people, , bombings, atro-
cities,.six million Jews, etcetera.
In it, or recalling it, is
Howard W. Campbell, Jr., whose
"confessions" along with "edi-
tor" Vonnegut's notes make up
the volume.
Howard Campbell is in an
Israeli prison awaiting trial for
crimes against humanity.
But Howard Campbell was an
American spy during the war,
only pretending to be the zeal-
ous anti-Semite Nazi w h o s e
radio broadcasts inspired hatred
in millions on both sides of the
Innocent, then? No, every-
thing in Mother Night points to
the contrary, including Vonne-
gut's Introduction, attached
five years after publication of
the book: "This is the only
story of mine whose moral I
know, I don't think it's a mar-
velous moral; I simply happen
to know what it is: We are what
we pretend to be, so we must
be careful about what we pre-
tend to be."
Campbell proved so success-
ful in infiltrating the N a z i
hierarchy, so successful in aid-
ing the Nazi propaganda ma-
chinery, that his paltry aid to
the allies seems insignificant.
Everywhere he turns, artifacts
of the Third Reich attest to
his adeptness at propagating
prapaganda: His hasty sketch

of a capitalist Jew (which crea-
tion became the practice target'
for millions), his anti-semitic
poem that captured the imagi-
nation of thousands.
But most of all, the unintend-
ed, but ironically successful job
his broadcasts did to maintain
morale in Nazi Germany.
Even Campbell's antagonistic
father-in-law tells him it would
* not matter if he had been an
American spy, because he had
served the Reich so well any-
way. Even his superior in the
spy-ring hates him.


Everyone who thinks highly
of Campbell is a Nazi. Every-
one else despises him. And by
1960, with the latter group
holding a considerable major-
ity, the pressures prove too
great fbf Campbell.
He finally gives up and turns
himself in to Israeli officials,
hoping for that final judgement
which will tell him just how
well he served the Nazis to serve
the allies.
But to dwell on this heavy
plotline is to obscure the es-
sence of Mother Night. F o r
Vonnegut almost never resists
the opportunity to undercut the
major theme with whatever pun
or quip seems handy at the
In Mother Night, this tech-
nique wins our enduring sympa-
thy for Campbell; it helps ,to
put us in his place, to see the
world as he sees it subtly coer-
cing him.
The humor of Mother Night,
however seems less pervasive
than in Vonnegut's other works.
Somehow we can laugh when
millions are killed in the Mar-
tian invasion of earth, but not
when six million Jews are sent
to the ovens. How selective our
moral education has been!
Also molding the tone of the
novel is Vonnegut's serious love-
sex theme, probably his most
explicit statement on the topic.
Campbell, to preserve his san-
ity during his spyNazi years,
seals off one portion of his life
- the Nation of Two, his sex
life with his wife - from out-
side poisons. But even this sa-
cred territory is destroyed and
the memory desecrated.
First, Campbell is tricked in-
to bedding down with his wife's
look-alike younger sister. Then
he learns that his private me-
moirs of his sex life with his
wife - "Memoirs of a Mono-
gamous Casanova" - is selling
millions in the plagarized Rus-
sian edition.
And having said all this about
themes, I must hasten to say
that Mother Night is not about
thematic intangibles at all. It
is about people.
It is about some characters
who make it as people and a
few who don't. Dr. Abraham
Epstein, who spent his e a r 1 y
childhood at Auschwitz an d
wants to forget, and his mother-
who wants to remember-they
make it.
I.So does Bernard B. O'Hare,
who has dedicated his life to
the destruction of evil personi-
fied, Howard Campbell.
Resi Noth, the look-alike sis-
ter, is marginal. Campbell does
not believe her love for him
either, but it is presented as a
reality and it extremely diffi-
cult to assess.
Vonnegut's Adolph Eichmann
is simply a caricature drawn
to provide an insane contrast
to Campbell's rational destruc-
But most important, Howard
W. Campbell, Jr., is flesh and
blood. Despite the maddening
life he has lead, a life which
drives him toward (if not to)
suicide, he retains all the qual-
ities we demand. Campbell re-
mains a rational, though com-
punction-driven human being,
buffeted by history, but striv-
ing against it, and even win-
ning small victories along the
But all along Campbell awaits
the olly-oly-ox-in-free that will
call him in from anonymity, the
call that never comes. So, in the
end, he must settle for the
clarion from Israel bearing
some strange relation to his last
name, the continual ring of the
public address at the concen-
tration camps: "Leichentrag-
er zu Wache," spaced amid the
playing of solid classical music.
Translation: Corpse-carrier to
the guardhouse.

Like most of its characters,
Mother Night makes it. It suc-
ceeds as both fictionalized his-
tory and as fantasy literature.
And. apart from that, it is a
sometime definitive, if im-
pressionistic commentary on
people, (the stupid, the insane
and the rational) and the ex-
plosive, maddening and mad-
dened society they comprise.


to the
After reading Vonnegut's Wel-
come to the Monkey House
which he describes as "samples
of the work I sold 'in order to
finance the writing of novels,"
I discovered why I don't know
anyone who reads magazine
short stories. They're generally
Maybe that explains why they
are a dying medium. Almost
half the stories in this collec-
tion were first published in such
late and lamented places as
Collier's and the Saturday Eve-
ning Post.
What can you do, but agree
with an author who admits in
his preface that the entire book
may be a "series of narcisistic
giggles." Incidentally, the Pre-
face is probably the best writ-
ten part of the book and was
reprinted on The Daily Book
Page last fall,so those of you
who lovingly hoard old Dailies
can read it without buying the
Perhaps the best defense for
the republication of these stories
is that as a unit they provide a
rather thorough survey of the
distinctive styles of major maga-
zines ranging, from Ladies Home
Journal to Fantasy and Science
Each story seems so tailored
for its intended recipient, that
the collection gives a much
clearer picture of the thoughts
an'd ideas of America's maga-
zine editors and magazine read-
ers than they do of Kurt Von-
For instance, the title story of
this collection was written for
Playboy and describes a futu-
ristic society where sex is con-
trolled by medication which
numbs the lower half of every-
one's body.
Just about the only distinctly
Vonnegut touch is the revelation
that J. Edgar Nation got the
idea for this so-called ethical
birth control after being shock-
ed one Sunday after church by
the immoral behavior of the
monkeys in the Grand Rapids

worst, "Harrison Bergeson" was
not surprisingly created for
Fantasy and Science Fiction
and reads like it was conceived,
written, edited and delivered
within 17 minutes.
While Vonnegut's novels are
generally distinguished in part
by their intricate plotting, many
of these short stories are some-
what like Art Buchwald columns,
since they take one idea and
follow it to its inevitable con-
clusion, beating it to death en
Yet this collection is not with-
out its assets. Toward the end
of the book either the stories
got better or my tolerance for
hack writing increased drama-
tically, as I distinctly enjoyed
several stories with science\,fic-
tion motifs.
The best of these was "EPICAC"
written for Collier's. Vonnegut
tells in a few pages the rather
touching tale of the rise and fall
of an almost human computer
who falls in love. The computer
is somewhat reminiscent of Salo
in Sirens of Titan.
Perhaps it's not strange that
my favorite Vonnegut story 'is
the only one not attributed to
a magazine. I was rather cap-
tivated by a 1963 story entitled
"Hyannis Port," although. it
deals tangentially with the Ken-
nedys, who never struck me as
a subject for magazine fiction.
In it, Vonnegut tells of a
neighboring estate owner and
his son who respond to the pres-
ence of the Kennedy entourage
by displaying a highly visible,
floodlit portrait of Barry Gold-
water from their second story
Vonnegut uses the juxtaposi-,
tion of this situation with the
father's discovery of his son's
engagement to a fourth cousin
of the Kennedy's to gently il-
lustrate the arbitrariness of
most political views.
Vonnegut calls these stories
"the fruits of Free Enterprise."
Appended to this, but hopefully
not by Government intervention,
should be a kind of caveat emp-
tor. This is not a book to be
bought unless you're a library
or a devotee of vintage Collier's.
Not if you're looking for vintage
However, if some maiden aunt
should grace you with a copy
of this collection instead of a
handknit tie, keep it. You'll find
it makes much better bathroom
reading than most newspapers
or magazines, but, alas, that's
only because most $5.95 hard-
cover books tend to be rather

At first reading, Player Piano cally
appears to be a simple attack, menia
on mechanized society which iona
destroys all pretenses of human (Reek
dignity by creating a complete Army
technocracy, ruled by a man- are pl
ager-engineer elite. But Vonne-
.gut has much more to say in Thi
this, his first novel. third
Change has been considered by A
by many to be man's crucial subseq
problem. On the personal level, machi
aging and death represent an by th
are si
incomprehensibly and often ter- range
rifying type of change. But in rd
the social aspect, change be- cordin
comes an even more complex di- and I
lemma. Utopias are always be- Yet
ing postulated, even legislated. live o
Yet the lure of Utopianism is rather
suspect, a n d in Player Piano tions
Vonnegut raises the most press- produi
ing question: Do a n y of the which
changes men fight and die for racy,a
make any difference? allot o
And in Player Piano, the an- the w
swer is clearly no. There is no his wi
difference. Before industrializa- proud
tion, Vonnegut says, man had a The
sense of pride in the work of his name
own hands, a sense of purpose. the tr
He also led a hard, meager life Piano.
and died young. In the Player minut
Piano world, he lives longer and there,
better, but with less dignity. initial
Those who feel the loss most positio
strongly will be rebels, but the ter th
Everymen go on drinking, chines
cheating on their wives, a n d thing
hating whoever is their boss. and f
Only the amount of bread and drink
the t y p e of circuses provide Orang
change. In each type of society, on th
the losses balance the gains. Indus
Certainly Vonnegut is keenly munic
aware of the failings of mech- Resou:
anized society, and he satirizes person
them with adeptness. For ex- the p
ample, when a checkers playing Orang
machine short circuits and dies chine
during competition, the tech- The
nocrats seriously intone, "The eryma
Lord giveth and the Lord taketh he ha
away." Vonnegut's protagonist sense
has to laugh here, because ac- Paul i
cording to t h e author's pro- .tion.7
fessed life - theory, there is <,
nothing else he can do. And
the technocrats are amazed at
his audacity.
However, and more important,
Vonnegut also realizes that no
computer or machine can de-
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h i/s
a skil

like the man who earns
living by guessing songs
by bands on television
the volume turned down.
se he needs to feel he has
ll that no machine car
ate, Alfy creates one, al-
h his IQ rating techni-
has sentenced him to a
l job in the Reconstruc't-
and Reclamation Corps
s and Wrecks) or the
Alfy won't go, and there
enty of other Alfys.
s is of course after the
great war, which was won
nerican knowhow, and the
quent rebellion against the
nes, which was put down
e technocracy. A 11 lives
upposedly very neatly ar-
d by the computers, ac-,
g to individual aptitude
another man chooses to
ff his wife's prostitutijn,
than write public rela-
for the system. He has
ced an unpublished novel
criticizes t h e technoc-
and now the computer will
only one job for him. But
riter will not give in, and
fe is not only willing but
of his integrity.
protagonist, the aptly
d P a u 1 Proteus, realizes
'ue significance in Player
In the end, the change is
e. T h i s conclusion is
e v e n though Vonnegut
ly displays so much op-
n to the mechanical. Af-
ey have destroyed the ma-
, the people look for some-
to catch their attention,
ind an untouched s o f t
m a c h i n e. Previously
e-O had been perpetrated
e public by the National
trial, Commercial, Com-
ations, Foodstuffs, and
trces Director, the only
who liked the stuff. Now
eople are clamoring for
e-O. They want the ma-
real tragedy is not Ev-
n's, but Proteus'. Because
s never had an ideal, or a
of belonging or purpose,
is seduced by the revolu-
His more sensitive mind

This is a nation of slobs.
We've got all kinds of slobs
here: intellectual slobs, acade-
mic slobs, liberals, fascists, steel-
workers, cowboys, tailors law-
yers, politicians, all of them
Because we're all slobs, we
have a singularly slobby na-
tional vision. Everyone looks
forward to the day when he'll
be just as good as anybody else
and won't have to worry about
slipping. And we have a sing-
ularly slobby idea of what it's
all about, actually.
You know, deep down inside
you, that there's really some
simple explanation for every-
thing. Right?
That if you just had the in-
formation everything would fall
into place and you could explain
the nature of the universe in a
couple of sentences or at'most
a paragraph. Right?
Because we're all slobs, only
a slob can really talk to us. I
mean we can read Nietzsche,
but inside we know that the an-
swer to our questions lies some-
where closer to Superman than
to Ubermensch. When you come
right down to it, the nation's
taste runs much more to comic
books, where it all makes eeie,
than to existentialist novels that
You have to worry about even
when you're done with them.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a slob
like all the rest of us, with a
slob's vision. He fulfills this
vision, as far as he can, in The
Sirens of Titan, his most slob-
like, and therefore best, book.
All of human history has been
shaped and molded, you see, by
the inhabitants of the planet
Tralfamadore, who. were just
passing through when good old
chance: forced them to mess
around with us. So they did,
and $ht's why everything hap-
pened. Simple, huh?
The book isn't quite as simple
as all that. As we all know, you
can't have a good comic book
without a super-hero and areal-
ly screwy plot. So Sirens has
both. And it has all the real
American folk-heroes in it: The
multi-billionaire who made his
fortune by following the Good
Book, the frigid bitch from New-
port, R.I., the struggling dumb
revolutionary, the friendly robot,
And it even has a vision of
the Good Society, where every-
one is really equal and Dkes
each other and all like that,
It's an All-American bo ,
the kind of book slobs can en-
joy, the kind of book that pro-
vokes comments like "It's not
great or anything, but when
you finish it you say 'I like that,'
you know?"
I know, I know.

to his own purposes. The tech-
nocrats make fools of themselves
in everything they do, and most
especially those who really be-
lieve in the system as perfect..
For instance, Vonnegut writes,
"It was the miracle that won the
war - production with almost
no manpower. In the patois of
the north side of the river, it
was the know-how that won the
war. Democracy owed its life to
But this is no democracy; thc
government is actually run by
In its way then, Player Piano
is an allegory of man. He cre-
ates an illusion of change but
really is capable, of changing
only the surface of his existence.

The Playboy
than most in

story is better
the book. The






y h
xxx Mm

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