Look at the birdie unpub.., p.1
Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction, p.1Kurt Vonnegut
ALSO BY KURT VONNEGUT
A Man Without a Country
Armageddon in Retrospect
Bagombo Snuff Box
Between Time and Timbuktu
Breakfast of Champions
Canary in a Cat House
Fates Worse Than Death
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Like Shaking Hands with God (with Lee Stringer)
The Sirens of Titan
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
Welcome to the Monkey House
a cognizant original v5 release october 04 2010
by Sidney Offit
As I read this anthology of Kurt Vonnegut’s previously unpublished short stories, I was reminded of the paradoxical aspects of his personality. Few writers in the history of literature have achieved such a fusion of the human comedy with the tragedies of human folly in their fiction—and, I suspect, fewer still have had the grace to so candidly acknowledge them in their presentation of self.
During the years of our friendship, though I was aware that he might be suffering private misery, Kurt scuttled his demons with élan as we played tennis and Ping-Pong, skipped off to afternoon movies and jaunts around town, feasted at steak houses and French restaurants, watched football games on television, and twice sat as guests in a box at Madison Square Garden to root for the Knicks.
With his signature gentle but mordant wit, Kurt participated in family celebrations, meetings of writers’ organizations, and our gab and laugh sessions with Morley Safer and Don Farber, George Plimpton and Dan Wakefield, Walter Miller and Truman Capote, Kevin Buckley and Betty Friedan. I don’t think it an exaggeration to suggest that I, as well as Kurt’s other friends, felt that time with Kurt was a momentous gift no matter how light our conversation. We often found ourselves imitating his amused reserve about his own foibles and those of the world.
Along with the fun and warm support he so graciously expressed to his friends, Kurt Vonnegut treated me to intimate glimpses of the master storyteller whose ironic and frequently startling observations of people emphasized the moral complexities of life. Walking uptown after a memorial service for an unmarried female author who had devoted her life to literary criticism, Kurt said to me, “No children. No books. Few friends.” His voice expressed empathic pain. Then he added, “She seemed to know what she was doing.”
At Kurt’s eightieth birthday party, John Leonard, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, reflected on the experience of knowing and reading Kurt: “Vonnegut, like Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain, is always being funny when he’s not being depressed,” Leonard observed. “His is a weird jujitsu that throws us for a loop.”
The Vonnegut acrobatics are off to a fast start in this circus of good and evil, fantasy and reality, tears and laughter. The first story, “Confido,” is about a magical device that provides instant conversation, advice, and therapy to the lonely. But—and here comes the flip side—Confido, the ingenious mind reader, eagerly reveals to its listeners their worse dissatisfactions, leading to painful discomfort with life. This story suggests not only the risks of psychiatry, where the patient may learn too much about himself/herself, but also the drastic spiritual consequences of biting the knowledge-bearing apple.
Although I recall Kurt as being appreciative of his brief adventure with psychotherapy, misgivings about the practice of psychiatry are a recurring theme in this collection. “Look at the Birdie” begins with the narrator sitting at a bar, talking about a person he hates. “Let me help you to think about it clearly,” the man in a black mohair suit with a black string tie says to him. “What you need are the calm, wise services of a murder counselor…”
This bizarre tale is resolved with a version of the old-fashioned O. Henry surprise ending that requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But who can resist the enchantments of a storyteller who has a mad character tell us that a paranoiac is “a person who has gone crazy in the most intelligent, well-informed way, the world being what it is”? That’s not just jujitsu. It’s martial art.
Other gems of Kurt’s wit and verbal play, his dour but just about always humorous commentaries, punctuate these tales. “FUBAR,” a story title as well as theme, is defined for the reader by the bemused and sometimes mocking narrator as “fouled up beyond all recognition.” Then we are asked to consider that “it is a particularly useful and interesting word in that it describes a misfortune brought about not by malice but by administrative accidents in some large and complex organization.”
With one brief sentence, the weather in Indianapolis, Kurt’s hometown, which is the scene for the story “Hall of Mirrors,” is vividly described. Although the first words of the sentence lead us to expect a lovely nature ramble, the balance surprisingly allows the reader to see, feel, and hear the ugly chill. “Autumn winds, experimenting with the idea of a hard winter, made little twists of soot and paper, made the plastic propellers over the used car lot go frrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Twenty-eight rs by my count. How’s that for sound effects in prose that says it all, courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut!
One of the few stories with an unhappy ending, “The Nice Little People” provides a preview of the coming attractions of Kurt’s later career as a novelist. We are engaged by a reversal of the familiar image of larger than life space aliens: In Kurt’s tale, a platoon of sweet, tiny, insectlike folk descend in a spaceship the size and shape of a paper knife. They turn out to be frightened creatures whom Lowell Swift, a linoleum salesman, befriends. But on guard! The role the aliens play in the resolution of Swift’s deteriorating marriage is as harrowing as it is unpredictable. Unpredictable! Hmm. I should have suspected that! Especially with a hero named Swift and a hollow knife handle full of highly sensitive Lilliputian characters.
When I asked Kurt what he thought was the most important aspect of the craft of fiction that he taught his students during his years on the faculty of the University of Iowa’s graduate writing program, as well as Columbia and Harvard, he told me, “Development. Every scene, every dialogue should advance the narrative and then if possible there should be a surprise ending.” The element of surprise serves, too, to express the paradox of Kurt’s viewpoint. When all is said and written, the resolution, the surprise, turns the story around and gives it meaning.
Unpublished is not a word we identify with a Kurt Vonnegut short story. It may well be that these stories didn’t appear in print because for one reason or another they didn’t satisfy Kurt. He rewrote and rewrote, as his son, Mark, as well as agents and editors testify. Although Kurt’s style may seem casual and spontaneous, he was a master craftsman, demanding of himself perfection of the story, the sentence, the word. I remember the rolled up balls of paper in the wastebaskets of his workrooms in Bridgehampton and on East Forty-eighth Street.
The closest Kurt ever came to confessing an ambition for his writing was when he recited to me one of his rules for fictional composition: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
To Kurt Vonnegut writing was kind of a spiritual mission, and these stories with all their humor seem most often to be inspired by his moral and political outrage. They are evidence, too, of the volume
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s bylines appeared routinely in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Argosy. He later reminded his readers of the satisfactions of this association when he wrote in his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, “I was in such good company…. Hemingway had written for Esquire, F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Saturday Evening Post, William Faulkner for Collier’s, John Steinbeck for The Woman’s Home Companion!”
Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Faulkner! Steinbeck! Vonnegut! Their literary legacies survived the demise of so many of the magazines that provided them with generous fees, per word or per line, and introduced them to hundreds of thousands, even millions of readers.
Kurt’s stories selected for this collection are reminiscent of the entertainments of that era—so easy to read, so straightforward as to seem simplistic in narrative technique, until the reader thinks about what the author is saying. They are Kurt’s magic verbal lantern, the Confido that projects so relentlessly the vagaries and mysteries of human behavior, but with a leavening of humor and forgiveness.
The discovery of this sampling of vintage Vonnegut confirms the accessibility that is the trademark of his style and the durability of his talents, a gift to all of us—friends and readers who celebrate the enlightenments and fun of Kurt Vonnegut’s jujitsus and his art.
Foreword by Sidney Offit
Letter from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to Walter J. Miller, 1951
Shout About It from the Housetops
Ed Luby’s Key Club
A Song for Selma
Hall of Mirrors
The Nice Little People
Little Drops of Water
The Petrified Ants
The Honor of a Newsboy
Look at the Birdie
King and Queen of the Universe
The Good Explainer
February 11, 1951
Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing. For a couple of years after the War I was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. At the instigation of a bright and neurotic instructor named Slotkin, I got interested in the notion of the school (I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute), and decided to do a thesis on the subject. I did about 40 pages of the thing, based on the Cubist School in Paris, and then got told by the faculty that I’d better pick something more strictly anthropological. They suggested rather firmly (with Slotkin abstaining) that I interest myself in the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894. Shortly thereafter I ran out of money and signed on with G-E, and I never did get past the note-taking stage on the Ghost Dance business (albeit damn interesting).
But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me, and it now seems pertinent to you, me, Knox, McQuade, and anybody else whose literary fortunes we take a personal interest in. What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name.
If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.
The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance. (My reporting what Slotkin said four years ago is pretty subjective—so let’s say Vonnegut, a Slotkin derivative, is saying this.) About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.
Slotkin also said a person in the arts can’t help but belong to some school—good or bad. I don’t know what school you belong to. My school is presently comprised of Littauer & Wilkenson (my agents), and Burger, and nobody else. For want of support from any other quarter, I write for them—high grade, slick bombast.
I’ve been on my own for five weeks now. I’ve rewritten a novelette, and turned out a short-short and a couple of 5,000-worders. Some of them will sell, probably. This is Sunday, and the question arises, what’ll I start tomorrow? I already know what the answer is. I also know it’s the wrong answer. I’ll start something to please L&W, Inc., and Burger, and, please, God, MGM.
The obvious alternative is, of course, something to please the Atlantic, Harpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.
So, having said that much, where am I? In Alplaus, New York, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. As Slotkin said, these things are group products. It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah, but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.
If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.
If Slotkin’s right, maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.
This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self-pity. But it’s the kind of letter writers seem to write; and since I quit G-E, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.
The Summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-spoken executrix, was locking life up safely until Spring came to claim it. At one with this sad, sweet allegory outside the kitchen window of her small home was Ellen Bowers, who, early in the morning, was preparing Tuesday breakfast for her husband, Henry. Henry was gasping and dancing and slapping himself in a cold shower on the other side of a thin wall.
Ellen was a fair and tiny woman, in her early thirties, plainly mercurial and bright, though dressed in a dowdy housecoat. In almost any event she would have loved life, but she loved it now with an overwhelming emotion that was like the throbbing amen of a church organ, for she could tell herself this morning that her husband, in addition to being good, would soon be rich and famous.
She hadn’t expected it, had seldom dreamed of it, had been content with inexpensive possessions and small adventures of the spirit, like thinking about autumn, that cost nothing at all. Henry was not a moneymaker. That had been the understanding.
He was an easily satisfied tinker, a maker and mender who had a touch close to magic with materials and machines. But his miracles had all been small ones as he went about his job as a laboratory assistant at the Accousti-gem Corporation, a manufacturer of hearing aids. Henry was valued by his employers, but the price they paid for him was not great. A high price, Ellen and Henry had agreed amiably, probably wasn’t called for, since being paid at all for putterin
Or that had seemed to be that, Ellen reflected, for on the kitchen table lay a small tin box, a wire, and an earphone, like a hearing aid, a creation, in its own modern way, as marvelous as Niagara Falls or the Sphinx. Henry had made it in secret during his lunch hours, and had brought it home the night before. Just before bedtime, Ellen had been inspired to give the box a name, an appealing combination of confidant and household pet—Confido.
“What is it every person really wants, more than food almost?” Henry had asked coyly, showing her Confido for the first time. He was a tall, rustic man, ordinarily as shy as a woods creature. But something had changed him, made him fiery and loud. “What is it?”
“Happiness, certainly! But what’s the key to happiness?”
“Religion? Security, Henry? Health, dear?”
“What is the longing you see in the eyes of strangers on the street, in eyes wherever you look?”
“You tell me, Henry. I give up,” Ellen had said helplessly.
“Somebody to talk to! Somebody who really understands! That’s what.” He’d waved Confido over his head. “And this is it!”
Now, on the morning after, Ellen turned away from the window and gingerly slipped Confido’s earphone into her ear. She pinned the flat metal box inside her blouse and concealed the wire in her hair. A very soft drumming and shushing, with an overtone like a mosquito’s hum, filled her ear.
She cleared her throat self-consciously, though she wasn’t going to speak aloud, and thought deliberately, “What a nice surprise you are, Confido.”
“Nobody deserves a good break any more than you do, Ellen,” whispered Confido in her ear. The voice was tinny and high, like a child’s voice through a comb with tissue paper stretched over it. “After all you’ve put up with, it’s about time something halfway nice came your way.”
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