Vonnegut Before Time Travel: A Review of While Mortals Sleep

If someone tells me they’ve outgrown something, I usually get incredulous. When I first became enamored with Kurt Vonnegut at 17, a 29 year-old co-worker told my best friend and I that he’d outgrown Vonnegut a long time ago and that we would to someday. This same co-worker also told us that he “didn’t listen to The Beatles anymore,” so we wrote him off as a lost soul, a doomed sad person to be pitied. Loving the slick prose and sardonic Vonnegut morality tales would never get old. No way. And yet, over a decade later, though I’ve still not “outgrown” Vonnegut by a long shot, with the release of his second posthumous short story collection While Mortals Sleep, I must admit, while he was a still young man, Vonnegut may have outgrown me.

In his most famous novel, Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut brought time travel to mainstream literary fiction by stripping it of any of its functional science fictional explanations, thus rendering it a naked metaphor for memory and the way in which people perceive their lives. Similarly, much of Vonnegut’s oeuvre relies on non-linear time-skipping in order to drive home his themes and plots. For me, a massive fan of Kurt, this, and his other meta-fictional tricks never get old. For his detractors, he was a bit of a one-trick pony. Though, as another friend of mine is fond of saying, “the world if full of trick-less ponies, let’s enjoy the ones we have.” By that standard, the narrative tricks in a new Vonnegut collection should satisfy, assuming one knows what they are getting into, right? Well, yes and no.

The forward from Dave Eggers tells us that this batch of unpublished stories comes from the era before Vonnegut had truly arrived as a writer, so it comes as little surprise that the strongest stories in While Mortals Sleep are the ones that foreshadow the Vonnegut readers would come to know in his later work. The first story in the collection, “Jenny,” is probably the most recognizable as belonging to the Vonnegut brand. In it, a quirky and popular salesman with a robot refrigerator is revealed to be hiding a strange emotional secret. This would be the kind of concept Vonnegut would explode into huge sweeping themes in his later novels and stories. Instead, in “Jenny,” the moral weight of the story remains small and human; special little keys in the toes of the shoes, which the salesman can manipulate daintily, control the robot. Never mind the specific metaphors of love and image in the story itself, the analog for how writers control their characters is on display here. And while this is commendable, it doesn’t have that same Vonnegut zing of his more famous and established work. In short, he doesn’t go over the top.

The story “Ruth” presented me with a similar reader’s dichotomy. In it, a recently widowed woman, pregnant with her late husband’s child, has a harrowing encounter with her mother-in-law. This mother has a perfect shrine to the boy her dead son once was, and seems intent on taking the unborn child from title character Ruth. This story is beautiful, haunting and completely effective. And yet, I wanted it to go further. I wanted a sort of fantastical twist to enter into the story. When Ruth is on a train platform, confronted with an old man puffing on a cigarette, I wanted the man to reveal himself to be time-traveling Kurt Vonnegut, in a meta-fictional way, like in the finale of his novel Breakfast of Champions. But of course this was an absurd request of mine, because the Vonnegut I was imagining here didn’t exist yet! As a reader I was hoping for the author to time-travel throughout his own work, sprinkling the seeds of what he would eventually become paradoxically into early stories.

In this way, despite being expertly written, and mostly emotionally moving, this collection feels small and quiet when compared to the cacophony of the personality that is Kurt Vonnegut. This is not to say that several stories don’t offer the very best of what short literary fiction can do. In fact, as a cross-section of middle-class America in the 40s and 50s, While Mortals Sleep is humanistic storytelling at its finest. Vonnegut seems bothered with inequality between the genders, and as such decides to depict these inequalities as absurdly as possible. In “With His Hands on the Throttle”, a man’s love of model trains nearly puts his marriage into jeopardy. Though the main character’s wife briefly shares in the joy of making model trains, the story ends on an unhappy, unresolved note.

The true contradictory genius of Vonnegut seemed to be his internal war between being a romantic and being a pessimist. And in this way, one specific story in this collection delivers. Though lacking any of his later fantastic trappings, the story “Out, Brief Candle” sums up what Vonnegut is made of. A widow(another one!) has been writing letters to a mysterious man who lives across the country. He forbids her from sending photographs, though after months of correspondence, she sends one anyway. The man promptly gets sick, and his letters cease. At the end of the story, the woman makes the trek to find her now-silent romantic pen pal, only to discover he has recently died. Ah, but of course he didn’t die! For the final passages of the story reveal that the one-eyed graveyard digger is indeed the Cyrano of this situation. Vonnegut effortlessly creates a romantic story, which would make many readers of romance swoon, while simultaneously mocking the genre in which the story exists.

The world of fiction, and certainly fantastical fiction, was a better place thanks to Kurt Vonnegut. And so, we’re always better off seeing more of the inner-workings of his mind. If you’re a rabid fan of Vonnegut like me, you’ll find something in this collection to love. If you prefer to remember him as the time traveling genius who sired Kilgore Trout and believed all mirrors were “leaks” into alternate dimensions, then While Mortals Sleep might be strange trip into a bizzaro world where Vonnegut was more…adult.

Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared here, with Clarkesworld Magazine, Nerve.com and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn where he sometimes tries to make bird sounds like “Poo-tee-weet”!


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