Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Welcome to the Monkey House

Kurt Vonnegut

Collection of short stories, some within the science fictional mold, others more mainstream in content. A rather focused way for me to look at the strengths and weaknesses of Vonnegut as a writer, and assess my own ambivalence with him. I’ve enjoyed almost all his books yet have rarely made an effort to seek them out, generally picking them up when I’m around. I find him amusing but less insightful than he seems to think he is, creative but often too awkward in what he’s trying to do that the larger project falls apart. By fame and general influence he’s certainly a major figure in twentieth century writing, but on the strength of my own reading I wouldn’t place him in that category, as with Gunter Grass but to a greater extent I find him lacking some quality that would allow real excellence. Part of that has always been my dislike over his self-marketing and scampering away from genre lables ’yes my books have time travel and aliens but they’re literature, not that science fiction trash’. As with Margaret Atwood, there’s something about that basic attitude that I see as either very calculating or very ignorant and dislike in either case. Strictly speaking that’s not a valid issue to bring against their writing, which should be assessed for its basic effectiveness and not the labels attached to it.

The stories in Welcome to the Monkey House are a mix, and a lot of specific stories I’m deeply ambivalent about. They’re engaging, maintain a fast pace, and a very good talent in quickly establishing character and situation. At times they also provide some great creativity and imaginative use of some unconventional setups. At the same time I’ve got more than a little kickback to most of them. They often seem too impressed with their own cleverness, for one thing, playing up thier position as hilarious in a way that sets my teeth on edge. Additionally, in terms of actual stories the sequence of events is rather predictible, I was frequently able to predict the next step several pages in advance. Vonnegut has significant skills, but the way he uses them I don’t find altogether fitting, and after a number of stories in a row I grew rather alienated from the (consistent) tone of the narrative voice. I definitely prefer Vonnegut’s novels, and this reading has made me interested enough to try to finish reading his main corpus, but I retain some sizable reservations.

Worse than: A is for Alien by Caitlin Kiernan
Better than: The Deceitful Marriage and other exemplary novels by Miguel de Cervantes

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