In one of the more awkward chapters of my adolescence, my dad started to read me Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which if you haven’t read before, or if it’s been awhile, you ought to know opens with graphic (literally) descriptions of beavers – animal and otherwise. While I knew enough to be mortified, and my dad knew enough to immediately stop reading, I couldn’t help but recognize something addicting about an author who wrote in such a sacrilegious tone, with such disregard for the pretensions of readers. And so later, under the covers and lit by the hallway light, I read Breakfast of Champions, and decided that Mr. Vonnegut was okay by me.
Now, decades (!, well, a lie, just a decade) later I’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, and I’m reluctant to report that it’s… not very good. Not bad! (I’d rather not post at all if it meant besmirching the good name of one of my better, favourite authors) Just, not very good. The novel follows Paul Proteus as he sorts out what it means to be human in the age of machines, and what it means to be smart/wealthy (smalthy?) in the age of mass unemployment and ignorance. His journey (a short one) to the climatic not-epiphany takes us through farming, summer camp, and nights at the bar. His not-epiphany? Art might make us human; hierarchies, while troubling, might ultimately be for the greater good. Always might.
To what do I attribute my dissatisfaction? Well, Paul, despite his ostensible ideological journey, doesn’t evidence any noticeable character change – I’d just as easily believe he swears allegiance to the company as to the radicals (is this the point? maybe…) and the symbols bear down on this reader like too much bread and potatoes.
Why does it still count as not bad? Well, expert in tone, Vonnegut delivers in the first novel the same wry tone you’ll know and love in later novels, as well as the simplest of questions – what makes us human? – explored as it ought to be, through a fiction we recognize as true (enough).