Monday, January 09, 2012

book review: Bagombo Snuff Box uncollected short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut

"When Kiah got the car into the six-lane turnpike, he ceased feeling like an intruder in the universe. He was as much part of it as the clouds and the sea. With the mock modesty of a god traveling incognitio, he permitted a Cadillac convertible to pass him. A pretty girl at its wheel smiled down on him.
Kiah touched the throttle lightly and streaked around her. He laughed at the speck she became in his rearview mirror. The temperature gauge climbed, and Kiah slowed the Marittima-Frascati, forging himself this one indulgence. Just this once - it had been worth it. This was the life!"
Quote from The Powder-Blue Dragon.
There are several themes that come out of this collection of stories that were written by Kurt Vonnegut at the start of his writing career. He was penning these ideas at a time of great change in his home country. The Second World War had been won and the materialism that dominated the 1950s was yet to be overtaken by some of the dark times of the 1960s. But even with cars and dishwashers becoming things the common person could dream of what came with that technology was change and its that sense of tension between the new and the old that forms one of the main themes of this collection.

He is brutally honest about his work in an introduction and coda to the collection of 24 short stories revealing that he had to edit some of them to get them into a condition he was happy with to have them republished in his volume.

One of the themes is around the idea of technology and success with the materialism of post-war America starting to dazzle even those that previously might have thought car ownership was beyond them.

In The Power-Blue Dragon a car mechanic buys an Italian racing car in a purchase designed to show the world just what sort of man he is. The car has the ability to turn heads but few pay much attention to the boy driving it. The lesson here is that respect is something that cannot be bought with a cheque and happiness will not always result after flaunting wealth.

That idea of flaunting wealth is at the heart of The Package which starts with a man and his wife returning to a state of the art house after a holiday abroad. He has sold his factory and made millions and he is happy to let an old school friend look him up. The chance to show off and bury the resentments of the past are just too good to miss but at the end the arrogance caused by success and wealth blinds the main character from the truth. He has a victory but it is a hollow one.

Drawing on his background working for industry there are numerous references throughout the stories to the workings of large corporate entities and the men who run them and the people who work for them.

A post-war generation looks for excitement and a chance to sell-off the factories and hard work of their parents just to feel they can live. Of course they can only 'live' because of the effort made by their parents.

That theme is shown in both Runaways and This Son of Mine, where in the first story a poor boy falls in love with a Senators daughter. When the union is given the blessing of the parents the attraction of rebelling against authority falls away and the loveless relationship is laid bare.

In This Son of Mine a factory owner finds his highly educated son reluctant to take over the factory. Emotional blackmail and weakness lead the status quo to remain but without happiness on either side of the generational divide.

One of the other themes here is music, particularly in the form of the high school band. One band and band master crop up in two stories Ambitious Sophomore and The Boy Who Hated Girls charting the lengths to which people will go to to be part of a band and to stand out for their town. The sense of proportion is lost by band leader and band members alike as they pursue a dream which seems so limited in the face of the concerns of real life.

But if there was one other riff that chimes through this collection it has to be around the impact of change. Remember Vonnegut is a man changed by war, what he saw and what he experienced, and other characters are in the same position, as in the story Souvenir. But it is not just war time scars that continue to cause problems it is the sense of technology changing the way we all live.

The time and motion man who turns up in a town, in the story Poor Little Rich Town and rewrites how people live just to save time and money fails completely to understand the emotional reasons people do things and the hidden costs of saving money.

If you want a taste of classic Vonnegut, mixing the sci-fi and the fantastical with the modern and routine, then ironically it appears right at the start of the collection in the story Thanasphere. The idea that there might be ghosts in space is a clever one and this is hauntingly told.

But there is so much more to Vonnegut than just running wild with his imagination on the boundaries of space. What this collection shows is that he can deliver character, depth of emotion and deal with some very large questions all in the boundaries of the small story format.

For those that have not read his short stories, and my hand was raised before opening this book, then it is worth having a read and getting a different take on the American Dream when it was starting to really get going.

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