A Series of Accidents #6: Welcome to the Monkey House

A Series of Accidents is a series about the books of Kurt Vonnegut, examined in order of publication.


Welcome to the Monkey House opens on a strangely apologetic note. In his preface, Kurt Vonnegut notes that whereas he wrote his novels to explore grand ideas, he wrote his short stories for money. Vonnegut was always more or less humble when describing his writing, but he was particularly dismissive and self-conscious about his short fiction. Indeed, he left a good portion of what he had written out of even this collection, only publishing it decades later in Bagombo Snuff Box.

Today, the idea of using short stories as a lucrative means to support novelistic flights of fancy would be ludicrous, but in the 1950s one could make a real living through short fiction. Middlebrow periodicals like Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post were numerous, reserved plenty of room for fiction, and paid well. These magazines wanted a particular kind of story, one that typically involved middle-class people dealing with realistic personal problems that eventually culminated in a pithy ending.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Vonnegut would struggle with this genre. The safe arena of middle-class thought was exactly what he was trying to escape through fiction. Some of the stories in this collection, like the childhood-sweethearts romance “Long Walk to Forever” or the troubled-teen drama “The Kid No One Could Handle”, seem like empty, almost parodic run-throughs of familiar tropes. One can practically feel the author’s indifference. Scholar Jeff Karon writes that “No one prefers to speak about Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories”, perhaps summing up a critical consensus.

But it is hard to write anything, even formula, without leaving a little bit of yourself in it. And so, despite his best efforts to be a hack, Vonnegut ended up writing some distinctly Vonnegut-y stories.

To begin with, there’s his parodic treatment of social class which was most evident in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. His stories are often narrated from the perspective of a professional outsider, such as the financial consultant in “The Foster Portfolio” who observes a man who keeps himself mouth-to-mouth to justify his second job as a pianist. Two stories are told from the perspective of a man who installs storm windows as he visits rich and histrionic household – one a set of Kennedy-hating conservatives (“The Hyannis Port Story”) and the other a feuding couple that’s a thinly-veiled version of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (“Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son.”)

These stories offer a window into Vonnegut’s ambivalent feelings on class. As I noted in the previous entry, Vonnegut spent time in just about every social class, and never felt at home in any. The same is true of his window-installing avatar, who has a kind of temporary and liminal membership in high society: “A man who sells storm windows can never be really sure about what class he belongs to, especially if he installs the windows, too.” It was this sense of dislocation that formed so much of Vonnegut’s worldview.

Not all of the realist stories are bad. “D. P.” is a rare Vonnegut story from the perspective of a person of colour, dealing with a black orphan being raised in Germany and identifying with the occupying American soldiers. It’s a nicely concise and affecting traditional narrative. “Miss Temptation” starts out as almost a fairy tale, staging a morality play about an attractive young woman and a man who tells her off for making everyone too horny, but ends up finding real compassion for both of its characters.

This collection also contains a pair of essays, or at least essayistic narratives. “Where I Live” is a pretty straightforward treatment of the village of Barnstable, the New England village that served as a setting for several stories and was likely influenced by the Cape Cod towns in which Vonnegut lived for much of the 50s. “New Dictionary” is a somewhat skewed review of, well, a new dictionary, an “enormous and beautiful new bomb from Random House.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the essay David Foster Wallace wrote on a new dictionary edition, and the inevitable struggle between prescriptivist and descriptivist urges, three decades later.

More interesting, perhaps, are the various stabs at science fiction or SF-like premises which Vonnegut includes. These stories suggest that Vonnegut’s claim that the stories were purely for profit is somewhat dubious: since such stories were less likely to be accepted by middlebrow journals, and sci-fi magazines (which indeed published a few of the stories here) paid much less, why not stick to realism? I suspect that Vonnegut’s penchant for big ideas and thought experiments lead him away from middlebrow sensibility even in his more mercenary work.

Many of these stories take the form of anti-utopian stories: that is, stories in which someone attempts to create a perfect world and things go terribly wrong. One example of this is the title story, set in a world where seeing monkeys masturbate at the zoo leads a social reformer to create a pill (soon mandatory) that removes all sexual impulses and pleasure from humans. It’s a critique of 1950s sexual repression, of course, but things take a rather disturbing turn when the leader of an underground resistance cell kidnaps and eventually rapes a nurse, all the while suggesting that this is necessary for her liberation. (This story, like Player Piano, was mentioned in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as one of Kilgore Trout’s stories, perhaps suggesting what Vonnegut ultimately thought of it.)

The most famous story in this collection, and perhaps Vonnegut’s most famous short story period, is “Harrison Bergeron.”  The story takes place in a world which aims to render everyone equal in their abilities through a series of handicaps that reduce everyone to seemingly the lowest human level of physical and mental strength. This world is briefly interrupted by the titular Bergeron, a man of irrepressibly extraordinary abilities, who wishes to reign as a kind of mad emperor. This is another trait that unites Vonnegut’s anti-utopias: those that rebel against the system, like Paul Proteus and his doomed Ghost Shirt Society, are just as morally dubious as their rulers.

I first read “Harrison Bergeron” as part of a yellowed course pack in tenth-grade English. That year we were doing dystopias (1984, Brave New World, Anthem), before teen dystopias became quite so omnipresent. I didn’t really like the story, being quite attached to the idea of equality (as I still am.) Not knowing Vonnegut as a writer, it seemed like one-note anti-Communism. As an adult who likes Vonnegut enough to do a whole article series on him, I still don’t really like “Harrison Bergeron.” There are parts of it that are striking: the makeshift system of handicaps, a dystopia composed of bags of birdseed and ugly masks, and the reoccurring name (but not much else) of Diana Moon Glampers from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. But on the whole, it feels like a denunciation of the imagination and sympathy that motivates so much of Vonnegut’s best work.

These stories continue on. “The Euphio Question” imagines an alien radio wave that delivers pure happiness to humanity, at the expense of rendering them so docile that they don’t notice the world falling apart around them. (This is a not-particular-subtle allegory for television.) “And Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” is set in a world where aging has been cured, and the world is now direly overcrowded. The latter has a great moment where a woman proposes that old people should just let their life go, but that she is only in her nineties and thus in the prime of her life.

There are also two stories that are companion pieces to Vonnegut’s biggest anti-utopia, Player Piano. “Deer in the Works” is a more realist story set in Illium, Vonnegut’s fictionalized version of Schenectady and the General Electric labs. After having glimpsed a bit of wildlife having stumbled into this mechanized environment, a new employee decides to flee into the woods alongside him. This seems like a pretty clear allegory for Vonnegut’s decision to leave corporate life. “EPICAC” sees the titular computer, which also appears in Player Piano, play the role of a digital Cyrano, helping to seduce a woman with mathematically perfect love poetry but then destroying itself because its love could never be realized. These stories are interesting in the way that authors’ early fiction often is, giving us glimpses of ideas that were better realized in the longer works, but both have that whiff of the neat home-journal ending to them.

For the most part, I have the same problems with these stories as I did with Player Piano, in that they’re anti-utopias and I’m a utopian. I think it would generally be a good thing if people lived longer, maybe forever, or if people didn’t have to work to survive, or if people’s fates in life were more equal, and that it’s worth trying to make these things a reality. (Your genitals can stay as they are though, unless you want different ones.) Of course, these changes would bring with them unintended consequences, but will these consequences really be worse than the unfairness that currently exists in the world?

At their best, anti-utopian stories can remind us of the consequences of overly schematic and controlling means of reform. At their worst, they can be a sedative that inoculates against any attempts to improve things at all. The question of whether, and how, the world could be changed was still something Vonnegut was thinking over in this period, and one he would return to throughout his work. By the time of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, with its paternalistic but nonetheless kind vision of social reform, the kind of kneejerk conservatism we see in this collection had mostly evaporated – and not a moment too soon.

The one science-fictional story here that can be read optimistically is “Unready to Wear”, set in a time where humans have become “amphibious”, able to slip out of their physical bodies and become spectral. The narrator is part of a group that spends most of their time as spirits, occasionally taking a body for a “joy ride” before abandoning it. Vonnegut spends a surprising amount of time detailing how this society works, with warehouses full of fit bodies and mandatory hours spent maintaining it. For the most part, however, it’s a kind of utopia, without war or possessions or poverty:

“You ought to get amphibious and see how happy people can be when they don’t have to worry about where their body’s next meal is coming from, or how to keep it from freezing in wintertime, or what’s going to happen to them when their body wears out.”

The above could, with some modifications, be a line from a Bernie Sanders speech. Like Player Piano, it’s a riff on the post-World War II welfare state, and the idea of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” being guaranteed by the government. But “Unready to Wear” is, at least in my (probably prejudiced) reading, much more positive than that novel as to the idea of a work-less world. The main ideas of Player Piano – that such a situation would lead to a loss of ambition and humanity – are brought up by a zealous military tribunal opposed to the amphibious process, and coolly rebutted by the author. It’s a first-person narrative, so one could perhaps argue that this is meant to be an unreliable narrator who has given up on his humanity in a way we’re meant to be repelled by, but I think the text at least allows a positive reading. (Of course, it also suggests that we’re all doomed to conflict as long as we have human bodies to feed, so maybe it’s not too optimistic.)

Ultimately, I think “Unready to Wear”, moreso than anything else in Welcome to the Monkey House cuts to the dilemma that faced Vonnegut when composing these stories. He was tied to an earthly body that needed to feed a growing family and keep a roof over its head through writing pieces that would sell. But he wanted to be free of these demands, soaring away from realistic human limitations and into the realm of speculation. Becoming a writer was, for him, becoming amphibious – being able to straddle the worlds of imagination and reality. But he still found himself compelled to come down to Earth from time to time.

Next up: Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m going to take some time on this one.