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 This book was While Mortals Sleep, a collection of unpublished short stories released after his death.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.”
“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! 🙂
Info for my edition of Welcome to the Monkey House:
Published 2006 by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks,
Paperback, 331 pages