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Monday, May 14, 2012

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

When a literary icon dies, as Kurt Vonnegut did in 2007, there is the customary emptying out of the drawers. Every short story that is even half-passable will be pulled out, dusted off, and when they get enough to reasonably pad out a collection, published with great fanfare, as though great authors were routinely in the habit of hiding their best work in desk drawers lest anyone know their true genius. Thankfully, though the stories in While Mortals Sleep are nowhere near the height of his powers, Vonnegut is so good that even his half-baked ideas put most writers to shame.

The stories here are from a young Vonnegut, a struggling writer with a day job and kids to feed. In some of these stories you can see the manic, zany genius peeking through from behind stories calculated to appeal to the readers of tasteful magazines.

Vonnegut’s subject is all of humanity, but more specifically the strain found in America in the post-World War II period. The author finds us a species obsessed with the pursuit of wealth, enthralled by industrialization and mechanization, and struggling mightily for some kind of happiness or truth amidst the massive amounts of bullshit.

In one story an inventor is so hungry for perfect love that he destroys his soul building a mechanical wife from refrigerator parts. Another features a man helplessly obsessed with the world of his model railroad and neglecting his wife. In the title story, a cynical newspaperman is disgusted by the lengths the people of his town will go to in order to win a Christmas decorating contest.

Most of the characters in these stories are employees of large, faceless corporations. They’ve been given menial functions and are expected to perform them automatically. These stories capture them trying to let the human being inside the machine escape.

The stories in this posthumous collection feature just enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s trademark wit and black humor to make them a must read for any fan of the author’s work.

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