Look at the Birdie
by Kurt Vonnegut - review
M John Harrison sees the.best and worst of Kurt Vonnegut in a collection of early stories
M John Harrison
The short stories that comprise Look at the Birdie were rejected by the editors of the American "slick" magazines in the 1950s and have remained unpublished since. Written for "fat checks" – as the author puts it in a 1951 letter to Miller Harris – from such wide-readership glossies as Cosmopolitan, Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post, they display many of the characteristics we associate with Vonnegut the novelist: the amiable vagueness, the whimsical set-ups, the piquant but low-key observations. Their comic plots often revolve on an almost invisible change of heart. They catch tiny, pivotal moments. In many of them, everything that has actually happened to precipitate the crisis comes to the reader by back-narration, giving a wan, dissociated feel. Every so often an idea or a sentence stands out. "Autumn winds, experimenting with the idea of a hard winter, made little twists of soot and paper"; or, "Henry and Anne were in love with each other in a highly ornamental way."
Vonnegut gets down to it in the first or second sentence of each story; he's good at the hook. He blesses his central characters with surnames that readily communicate: what else do we need to know about someone called Fuzz, Littler or Foltz, except that he's "middle aged and rumpled" and "decent to a point that crippled him"? Fuzz, Littler and Foltz are "ordinary people", the McCarthy-era magazine audience stripped down to a notion and sold back to itself by the author. Though they're offered the new, ego-centred life we associate with Mad Men, they're still trying to see themselves through the clichés of self-renunciation that scaffold It's a Wonderful Life. The speed with which their world is moving between these two sets of values is very clear to them, but they can't defend themselves against the future except passive-aggressively: they suffer, and are silenced by, the kind of nostalgias you would associate with Ray Bradbury, at that time busily mourning the vanished culture of his invented American Gothic utopia.
The difference, perhaps, is Vonnegut's deflating acceptance of what's to come. In "Shout it from the Housetops", Elsie Morgan writes a bestselling autobiographical novel full of the "grubby little secrets" of the town she lives in. Her times are more innocent than ours: $160,000 is still a ticket to "a life of ease and luxury", but notoriety is not yet value-free or the direct equivalent of celebrity. Within a year or two Elsie has everything she wants, but all she wants is her old life back. "'I want to love my neighbours again, and I want my neighbours to love me again – and I want to be tickled silly by dumb things like sunshine and a drop in the price of hamburger and a three dollar a week raise for my husband.' She pointed out the window. 'It's spring out there,' she said, 'and I'm sure every woman in the world but me is glad.'"
In "Hall of Mirrors", women bring to Weems the hypnotist the "shapeless longings of widows with money, but without confidence" – after that it's not quite clear what happens, although it seems unlikely that he sends them, as he claims, into "new futures" through the mirrors in the abandoned ballroom at the top of his house. In "Confido", Henry Bowers invents the eponymous electronic life-coach and confidant, "a small tin box, a wire, and an earphone, like a hearing aid"; its first whispered words to his wife are, "Nobody deserves a good break more than you do." If "Hall of Mirrors" was perhaps a little too chaotically reflective for the slick editors, "Confido" was clearly too far ahead of its time. The Confido – rename it the "iConfide" and name your price – is an achingly 21st-century device. It's probably in development at Apple now.
This collection is in itself a story, about an author pursuing a market he wasn't interested in, indeed one for which he had contempt (though in his letter to Miller Harris, which provides such an effective preface to the collection, he reveals less contempt for the slick idiom than for the literary clichés of Atlantic, Harper's or the New Yorker). If "Fubar", "Confido" and "Shout it from the Housetops" show some of the qualities of his best work, "The Nice Little People" seems dashed off to the point of incoherence; and it's hard to imagine how "Ed Luby's Key Club" could have been read, even in its day, except as an episode of the blandest TV crime series ever made. The rest are neat, trivial, conceptually slick, eked out with little drollnesses, bits of nice writing or sarcasm. What they all lack is the punishing sense of the absurd that reeks from the early novels: Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle.
M John Harrison's Nova Swing is published by Gollancz.