Jul 23, 2008

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Player Piano

You could see Vonnegut's genius in his first novel.

On a blog I read, the Devil Vet's been thinking about hope and hopelessness in dystopian fiction. I think Player Piano is good example of how hope plays into dystopian narratives. The Ghost Shirt Society of the book rises in rebellion against the soul-numbing mechanized society even though they know they will fail. Why? Simply to show that it can be done. That there can be light at the end of that tunnel, if power is wrested from the managers and engineers who hold it in that society. "Hope in hopelessness" indeed.

But then, that's one of Vonnegut's favorite themes (literally from the beginning, as we see) to kick around. You might have the whole world against you, you might know from the beginning that stretching your wings will just result in being shot out of the sky, but the exercise of whatever freedom you can snatch is worth the fall.

Of course, he didn't rely simply on ideas. The man could spin a yarn. The whole section of the book where Proteus has to go on an annual weekend team-spirit-building retreat had me chuckling through my anger. I hate that kind of workaday pep rally crap, and that particular scenario sounds like my idea of four days of hell. And the chapter in which Proteus buys a small, old school farm - thinking that will calm his need to get out of the "we are all cogs" system - and his wife takes it completely the wrong way sort of broke my heart. Though, I have to admit, I felt some for the wife - it's not like he spent any time communicating his feelings or situation to her.

The running thread of the Shah of Bratpuhr touring the US, with his guide in more and more dire straits, was a nice touch. Sometimes that kind of show-and-tell subplot can feel tacked on or unnecessary, but Vonnegut's storytelling allowed it to weave in and out of the major action.

final thought: No surprise, I agree with him. If you take away a person's chance to do for themselves, you take away a major reason to get out of bed every morning. I'm not saying we all have to work hard or die. I'm just saying, yeah, we all need that feeling of dignity that honest work can provide, whether for decent wages or just for our own benefit.

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