Let’s Talk Books! — Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Warning: Spoilers!

Kurt Vonnegut was someone I’d heard great things about since high school. I knew a few people that swore by him back then, and one of my friends even went so far as to wish he was her grandfather.

Despite the high praises and interest to check him out myself, I never did pick up one of his books back then. It wasn’t until my creative writing courses in the second half of college did I hear his name mentioned again with the same praises as before. A lot of my classmates were surprised I’d never read anything by him before and instantly recommended Slaughterhouse-Five.

After graduating and having more time to read for myself, I went on a reading spree, trying to catch up on a lot of books I felt I should have read but never did. Checking out Kurt Vonnegut was on my list of things to do, and I checked one of his books out of the library soon after. This book was While Mortals Sleep, a collection of unpublished short stories released after his death. I loved it — maybe it was because I was just coming out of an environment that taught me how to critically analyze and take away valuable experiences from short stories, but I felt a big connection with the book. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy almost immediately after finishing it.

I tried Cat’s Cradle next, but it didn’t hold the same punch for me. It was okay, but… that’s about it. Just okay. It never really left much of an impact on me.

Slaughterhouse-Five came fairly shortly after that, and I’ve got to admit: I didn’t like it. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Maybe it’s because Cat’s Cradle left a disappointing taste in my mouth after loving While Mortals Sleep, but Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t captivate me at all.

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, either. I always heard Kurt Vonnegut, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, was terrific at dark humor, which I normally enjoy. But nothing in Vonnegut’s work really felt like humor to me. It reflected real people and their experiences well enough, certainly. But all three of his books never felt like they were supposed to be humorous. Was I missing something?

After that, I felt I kind of had my fill of Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote While Mortals Sleep off as the one book I genuinely enjoyed by him, but otherwise felt he just wasn’t for me. Didn’t hate him. Just not my cup of tea.

A couple of years later someone recommended Welcome to the Monkey House to me. At first I wasn’t interested in reading another Kurt Vonnegut book, but then I learned it was a collection of short stories. Since While Mortals Sleep was the only book I enjoyed by him, I thought maybe his short stories are just more appealing to me then his novels. I added it to my to-read list and finally got around to reading it during the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really do anything for me either.

To be fair, I enjoyed it more than Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. I definitely feel like I can invest myself into Kurt Vonnegut’s characters more when they’re presented in 10-20 page chunks instead of an entire novel. Still, as a whole, the stories in this collection for me were okay at best, and pretty uninteresting at their worst.

Among the more interesting stories are “Harrison Bergerdon,” which is about a world that has devices on people to make everyone have relatively the same intelligence and capabilities, and shows a pair of parents watching their son tear away from the shackles and get shot as a consequence; “Who Am I This Time?,” a story that tells of a girl that moved constantly as a kid and becomes enamored with an actor (or rather, his character) in a play she’s participating it; “Long Walk to Forever,” a love story between two childhood friends, one who’s about to get married and one who went AWOL to come back home and tell her how he felt; “The Foster Portfolio,” which was about a financial advisor consulting with a meek and humble man about what to do with a recently inherited fortune; “Miss Temptation,” a story about an attractive girl a town falls in love with until a returning soldier comes home and lashes out at her for dressing like a whore; “Next Door,” which is about a kid who stays home alone and tries to fix a troubling marriage he can hear from next door; “D.P.,” a story about an young boy living in an orphanage that believes his real father is a soldier camping out nearby; “Deer In the Works,” tells us the story of a man leaving his small business behind to enlist in a much larger corporation and how he struggles with adapting until he eventually runs away from the place; and “Adam,” which is about a man whose wife just had a baby and his feelings regarding how happy he is and how little everyone else cares.

I feel like these stories do a good job identifying many different aspects of being human. The other stories, while they certainly do the same, don’t hold the same kind of punch for me. I think one of the reasons why is because so many of them involve war and history, something I don’t really have much of an interest in. Looking back, this may be one of the reasons I failed to connect with Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, as both had similar themes.

But further than that, I feel like a lot of these short stories, even the ones I listed above, had pretty weak endings that hurt the overall experience for me. For example, in “Miss Temptation,” after the man harasses the attractive girl and causes her to lock herself in her home and eventually plan to move, he comes by to give her something when she lashes out at him for judging people by appearances and criticizes him for taking his frustrations out on her just because he thought she was attractive, and therefore, a shallow person. It’s a really great scene, but unfortunately it feels diminished when immediately after, she says he can take her by the arm and walk her into town to show everyone he’s fine with how she is. I’m not sure how this was supposed to be interpreted , but it felt too much like the setup for them becoming a couple and it really crushed the themes of the consequences of built up frustration due to loneliness that the story was expressing. Many of these stories seem to abruptly switch to a “happy ending” situation that feels too separate and out of place from the rest of each story.

And then some stories just completely bored me. “All the King’s Horses” in particular was my least liked. It was about a group of POWs forced to play in a chess game by their captor, with all of his players as the POWs. While an interesting setup, it lasts way too long and feels like it goes nowhere. The ending itself feels especially weak, as the captor lets them go and basically has this conversation:

“I was never gonna kill you guys. You’re free.”

“Thanks.”

“Let’s play again sometime. But just normal chess.”

“Yeah umm maybe. Probably not, tho.”

In the end though, is it something I could recommend? Probably not. I personally feel there are better short story collections out there, and plenty of authors better than Kurt Vonnegut.

But that’s just me. So many people love him and chances are, if you’re reading this review, you probably love him too. And that’s fine. He’s just not my kind of author, I guess. It’s a shame, because I’d really like to enjoy him more. But I’m either missing something pretty important from his works, or as I mentioned earlier, he’s just not for me. Although if you’ve got a recommendation of one of his other books you think I might enjoy based on what I’ve said, let me know. It won’t be anytime soon, but I can still see myself wanting to revisit him in an attempt to like him.

Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope you’re having a great week! 🙂

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Info for my edition of Welcome to the Monkey House:

Published 2006 by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks,

Paperback, 331 pages

ISBN 9-780385-333504

 

Let’s Talk Books! — Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Warning: Spoilers!

Earlier this year I read Kafka On the Shore, which incidentally was my first translated read in a long time. Despite it being a Japanese novel and my departure from liking anime, I really enjoyed it (even if I had some issues with the storytelling).

And now I’ve read another translated Japanese novel I’m excited to talk about: Battle Royale. One of my friends read it last year and I thought it sounded interesting. It was about a group of students who were thrown into a fight to the death/survival situation, like a combination of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. Kind of tired of borrowing from the library, I asked to borrow from her instead and finally gave it a read.

The story changes perspectives often, but the main character of Battle Royale is Shuya. The story starts off with Shuya and his classmates taking a study trip. On the bus ride there, we are introduced to every. Single. Person. In. The. Class. All 42 of them.

I hate to say the worst part of the book is the beginning, but if you ever want to read it it’s important to know. The entire first chapter gives introductions to every single person in Shuya’s class all at once. It’s confusing, cluttered, and really unnecessary. From 10 years of anime, manga, JRPGs, and even these two most recent novels, I can tell Japanese stories are told with different values in mind that Americans might normally label as bad writing. I’m willing to give some of these things a little more slack considering they’re told from a different culture, but I think something every reader and writer can agree on is to never start your story off with introducing forty different characters at once. Chances are extremely likely that no one is going to remember a fraction of these people and throwing the reader right into such a complicated information dump is most likely going to make them lose interest.

Although Battle Royale has been critically acclaimed, so… what do I know? 😛

Anyway, I didn’t get too invested in any of them because a) in a book about students killing other students, I had to expect at least half of these 42 characters would be written off quickly or off page, and b) my friend warned me that the abundance of characters (as well as the names all being foreign) was going to make for a confusing experience, so I went into Battle Royale with the intention of reading casually and quickly. Luckily, I didn’t find it hard to keep track of the central characters, but I’ll explain why in a little bit.

So Shuya and his classmates fall unconscious on their bus because of some sort of gas, and when they awake they’re in a classroom with a man named Sakamochi. He’s in charge of the “game” these students are about to play in. You see, The Greater Republic of East Asia (which I guess is Japan or what Japan is part of in this story) randomly selects classes to participate in a program where the students are brought to an evacuated, isolated area to kill each other until one student remains (Japan’s government is kind of a dick in this story). The public explanation is that it’s for military purposes, but if that sounds like horseshit there’s a better (although still kind of stupid) reason given at the end of the story.

Each student has a device secured around their necks that lets Sakamochi track them. They’ll also explode if they’re tampered with or attempted to take off, so they force students to participate. In addition, military ships are stationed around the island they’re going to fight on, and if anyone attempts to escape they’ll be killed on sight.

After a specific amount of time passes, Sakamochi will announce who’s died since the last announcement as well as introduce new forbidden zones indicated on maps provided to each student. This also forces students to eventually stop hiding and pit them against each other, but if even that wasn’t enough, if no one dies within a certain amount of time, Sakamochi will have each student’s neck device explode and end the game with no winner.

Each student is given a pack with randomly selected gear, including a weapon. They range from handguns to various bladed weapons, and in the case of two students, a fork and a device that detects neck devices in the area. Like class selection, all of this is distributed randomly.

Students leave one by one with a few minutes in between each departure. The game opens pretty brutally, with Sakamochi showing the class the dead, torn up corpse of their teacher, as well as him killing two of the students before the game even began, one of which was Shuya’s best friend Yoshitoki. Shuya sits and thinks about what to do before he gets to leave and wonders if any of his classmates would actually participate in this game. He’s all for trying to group together and finding a way to escape, but when he finds two dead bodies right as he leaves the school and is attacked by a student on the roof, reality sinks in. Avoiding the assailant and grabbing an emerging student, Noriko (who Yoshitoki told Shuya he liked, thus Shuya vowed to protect her for his dead friend), the two flee to find safety.

They eventually meet up with Shogo, a mysterious student who transferred recently. He saves Shuya from another student and, going off the sole feeling of Shuya and Noriko looking like a good couple, decides to join Shuya’s group. Shuya continuously goes back and forth between questioning Shogo’s trust and following him blindly, and continues to do so throughout the whole book, but in the end the three form an alliance. Shogo has a plan to escape the game but won’t tell Shuya and Noriko what it is in case one of them is captured and questioned. Sounds super fishy, and honestly I expected Shogo to betray them. Turns out that Shogo actually participated in the last program and has a unique advantage compared to everyone else. From experience, he knows more about the workings of the game and what other students are likely to do, so I guess this is supposed t be good enough of a reason to trust that Shogo really has a plan.

Like I mentioned earlier, chapters switch perspectives to different students, although it all remains in “limited” third person. I say “limited” because even though students don’t always share the same knowledge of what’s going on, Battle Royale often drops a line like “although x would have no way of knowing that the reason this and that didn’t work is because y had set up blah blah blah,” so at times it also feels like it’s omniscient third person.

I don’t want to give too much away.Weird, right? Considering I spoil a lot of plot points in these posts? But I don’t know. So much of what happens in this book is irrelevant to the plot that it seems kind of pointless to mention. Even longer arcs that seem important end so abruptly that I can’t honestly say it matters much to Shuya’s group, who I have to think of as the main group with the ultimate end goal.

Although many of the chapters don’t matter much to the plot, I can’t say they’re worthless. In fact, in their own weird way, they’re probably the most memorable parts of the book. Many chapters focus on one student or a group of students and their encounters with others. It’ll usually start up with someone hiding and being found, or going on the offensive, or something like that.

But then everything will be put on pause as a long, elaborate backstory is given for them. Every time this happens, I can’t help but think of Weird Al’s “Albuquerque” when he says “Hey, that reminds me of another amusing anecdote,” when he goes off topic onto something else. The transition is so blunt it’s almost comical. These backstories range from interesting to “all right, let’s get to the killing now.” Regardless, they all seem to set up an upcoming death to make it seem more meaningful. For example, two students debate whether or not to come out of hiding to call a ceasefire and a flashback is given to help us understand their desire to learn to trust others more. Once it’s over, they come out only to be mowed down by gunfire almost immediately.

There are a few characters who recur enough through these side chapters, though. One of the biggest ones is Shinji, Shuya’s friend. Shuya makes a huge deal to search for him for the first half of the book, so you really get the impression they’re either going to team up or fight each other at some point. They don’t. There’s a good chunk of chapters dedicated to Shinji using his expert, flawless, middle school hacking abilities to try disabling their neck braces and taking down Sakamochi (in between bragging about how he’s already slept with three girls, of course; you know, standard Japanese middle school stuff), but in the end he gets killed off by Kazuo, one of the two recurring “villains” of this group of students.

Kazuo is cold and emotionless (perfect for hating and conveniently making our heroes not feel too guilty when they eventually have to kill him) and comes equipped with a machine gun, and later, a bulletproof vest. Most of the students are killed by him, including his gang at the beginning of the program. To Shinji’s credit, he puts up the most of a fight anyone gives Kazuo (aside from Shuya’s group at the end, of course), but his entire arc is ended abruptly and rather disappointingly.

The other major villain is a girl named Mitsuko, the most popular girl in the class. She’s the sweet talking, seductive, but secretly vicious antagonist that kills her fair share of people, too. Unlike Kasuo, Mitsuko actually has emotions and makes for a more interesting character, especially when you find out about her past which explains some of her behavior. She uses more people and it’s interesting to see other students’ responses to her. There’s one in particular where Mitsuko is taken prisoner by two students, one who doesn’t trust her and another who has feelings for here, and her relationship with the latter is one of the more complex interactions we see in the entire book.

Numbers wind down and eventually it’s Shuya’s group and Kazuo left. Mitsuko, despite the build up, is unfortunately also one of the abruptly ended arcs that never went anywhere. Shuya’s group never even encountered her. Kazuo took care of her, and now he’s hunting Shuya’s group. There’s a large car chase (it’s only about half as comically random as it sounds) and Kazuo eventually dies to Noriko, although Shogo finishes him off so Noriko won’t feel as guilty.

Then Shogo turns on Shuya and Noriko. There are gunshots and the game is over.

Not gonna lie. I almost laughed when this happened. The possibility Shogo would do this was something Shuya voiced concern over multiple times throughout the novel. And the longer Shogo stuck with Shuya and went out of his way to help treat his and Noriko’s wounds, the more I began to believe he was really on their side. To have Shogo turn on them after all that time, abruptly and bluntly, seemed way to predictable at the start for it to actually happen. It honestly felt like a “fuck you” moment to the reader.

But in reality, as revealed during the final couple of chapters, it was staged. Shogo knew how to disable the neck devices and removed Shuya and Noriko’s after firing his gun into the air (he knew Sakamochi was listening in, but since they remained hidden under trees satellites couldn’t get visual confirmation). Shuya and Noriko secretly board the ship carrying Sakamochi and Shogo off the island. They kill everyone aboard and escape. Shogo dies from wounds he received both on the ship and during the fight with Kazuo. The book ends with Shuya and Noriko hiding, making their way towards wherever the road may take them, running from the police.

As I mentioned earlier, the way character backstories are abruptly presented isn’t often clean. So much is thrown at the reader that it’s unrealistic to remember everything and connect with many students. But the odd thing is, there were more memorable experiences here than I thought there would be. I thought it would just be Shuya’s group I’d find myself concerned with, but some of the other characters turned out to be more interesting than the main cast.

In some ways, it’s almost like a collection of short stories or vignettes centered around the central theme of the program. It may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but a lot of these side characters who only stuck around for a chapter or two was a big part of Battle Royale‘s appeal. For better or worse, bombarding the reader with random backstory in an arguably obnoxious way created more memorable characters. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I especially thought so when I began thinking how many participants in The Hunger Games left any kind of lasting impression at all. Besides Katniss and Peeta, I mean.

Okay, let’s throw it all out there. The premise for this book may remind you of The Hunger Games. Teens being forced to fight each other, etc. In fact, a quick search revealed that many people think The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale. Honestly, while the concepts are similar, I don’t think Battle Royale “invented” the concept of this kind of story. And both share their own unique traits to stand as their own things.

Regardless, I still couldn’t help comparing the two books with each other. I feel like they both failed where the other succeeded. If we’re talking about an overall better written narrative, I think The Hunger Games is more successful. For more risks involving how violent the characters are with each other, including descriptions, I think Battle Royale does a better job. I think Katniss is a more interesting character than Shuya, but as a whole the cast from Battle Royale leaves a more memorable experience than the other participants in The Hunger Games.

When it comes down to it, I think I liked Battle Royale more, flaws and all. The more I look at The Hunger Games, the more it seems like a YA series. And it is, I know. But the more I look at it, the more I feel like I’ve outgrown it a little. Battle Royale — I’m not exactly sure what demographic this is for.YA, adult, I think it could go either way honestly. Since it’s a translated Japanese book, I’d say it definitely has more of a niche audience here in America. But that being said, if you enjoyed The Hunger Games and want to experience something else with a similar premise, I’d recommend Battle Royale. If you’ve unfamiliar with Japan, the huge amount of names may turn you off, especially after the first chapter (foreign style of writing or not, I don’t think it was a good way to open a book at all). It’s long, though. It’s 600 pages and that might feel a little overwhelming. But I think it’s worth checking out.

There’s also a movie if you’d rather see that instead. It’s more or less the same as the book, but abridged. There’s a larger focus on the main characters instead of the side ones. It’s pretty cheesey, though. It feels more like an action movie than the book, which felt a little more like horror. But it’s on Netflix right now, so if you don’t mind subtitles, it’s there if you’re interested.

Thanks for reading! Hope everyone’s having a great week! 🙂

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Info for my edition of Battle Royale:

Published 2003 by VIZ, LLC

Paperback, 617 pages

ISBN 9-781569-317785