Monday, August 19, 2019

Book Report: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Annamaria on Monday

I have a penchant for re-reading books by my favorite authors.  This past week I started in on the the too-long-neglected early works of one of my absolute all-time favorites, Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut in my house

I began with his debut novel: Player Piano, published in 1952.  I found it more delightful, more inspiring, and mirabile dictu, more prescient than it was when I first read it in 1964.

The setting is what was then imagined to be the near future, a dystopian America, where machines have displaced just about the entire workforce, except the engineers and managers.  The story follows two central characters: Dr. Paul Proteus, a top engineer who develops doubts about the dehumanized society men of his ilk have created and the Shah if Bratpuhr, spiritual leader of six million in an imaginary country.  Who would have thought then how a Middle Eastern potentate in a story would resonate as he does today?

By Vonnegut's own admission, he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."  He was disteressed when reviewers called the book "science fiction," a genre he felt was "shoved into drawer which most reviewers regularly mistake...for a urinal."  That rule of thumb to the contrary not withstanding, the book got some great reviews.  It was nominated for, but evidently did not win, the International Fantasy award in 1953.

For me, it is amazingly relevant to our times. Look carefully at the first edition cover above.  "America in the Coming Age of Electronics" it says.  The domination of the world by electronics was not on most people's radar sixty-seven years ago.  Today talk shows and podcasts regularly discuss the dehumanizing  effects of people staring screens all day long. But in the 1950s, so soon after WWII, mass proaction was seen as an unalloyed blessing, considering that the might of US manufacturing had won the war for the Allies.
Vonnegut's  story is prescient in other ways too.  My favorite this time around is his portrayal of the President of the United States.  In Player Piano, he is described as a man who "had gone directly from a three-hour television program to the White House.  In giving a speech, he reads “order out of chaos” as “order out of koze.”

Then there are the insights into the human condition and the prose style.

“Well, you know, in a way I wish I hadn’t met you two. It’s much more convenient to think of the opposition as a nice homogeneous, dead-wrong mass. Now I’ve got to muddy my thinking with exceptions.” 

And this:
"The machines and the institutions of government were so integrated that trying to attack one without damaging the other was like trying to remove a diseased brain in order to save a patient."

And this:
“Bodies lay everywhere, in grotesque attitudes of violent death, but manifesting the miracle of life in a snore, a mutter, the flight of a bubble from the lips.” 

And... Oh, heck!  Read the book.  

Personal Aside:
"Joe Taylor"
I have been completely in love with Kurt Vonnegut since the first of his books that I read - The Sirens of Titan.  (I am rereading it now and loving it again the third time through.)  One morning in 1973, I came face to face with my idol. About a year into starting my own consulting practice, I became a charter member of the nascent New York Women Business Owners Association.  At our first Breakfast Gala, we honored three women - Gloria Steinem,   Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Jill Krementz (who I knew was married to Kurt Vonnegut).  At the reception before the meal, mimosa in hand, I strolled over to a round table to collect some crackers and cheese. There across from me, doing the same, was a man with an an unmistakable face and head of hair.  But his name badge said "Joe," something - maybe Taylor.  He looked at me.  I asked, "Truth be told, Joe, who are you?"  He pointed to his badge and said, "Joe Taylor."  I said.  "Would you do me a favor, Joe?"  He said, "Sure."  I pointed to my badge and said, "If you ever meet Kurt Vonnegut, would you tell him that Patricia King loves him?" He promised he would.


  1. Well played, Patricia, well played.
    I’ve only read a couple Vonnegut’s. I’ll have to up that count soon. Thanks for reminding us of his clever mind.


  2. Thank you, Dave. I’ve read every word at least once. The short stories are lovely. I especially like “Who Are awe This Time?” But there are lots of gems in Welcome to the Monkey House.”

  3. Here is an article from yesterday’s The Guardian on the same subject matter as the book!

  4. I LOVED your personal story. It represents you--and he--perfectly. :) One of my favorite memories of my early days in NYC was a party I attended that had me ending up in a serious conversation (more listening on my part than anything else) with Kurt Vonnegut, Andy Warhol, and Kevin McCarthy (actor and brother of author Mary McCarthy) about the then pending Vietnam War. They invited me to join them after for drinks, but I had to get home because of a court appearance the next morning. ANOTHER reason I'm happy to be no longer wedded to that jealous mistress.