I just moved to a new town and not knowing anyone here, I was wondering how I’d face the world. S had a great idea – join your local library, he said. When you have books, you’ll never be alone. It sounded like a cheesy line I’d give an eight-year-old, but hey, why not, right? I went to the library, which is little more than a one-room schoolhouse, and ambitiously checked out a handful of classics.
What I hadn’t taken into account is that I haven’t been a reader for quite a while now. I’ve forgotten how to read. I mean really read. How to see words on a page and create a world in my head. How to allow what could be hieroglyphics to evoke streams of emotion in me.
So I had to choose a book to re-introduce me to a world I haven’t experienced in years. Vonnegut’s death in 2007 had brought to my attention the sorry fact that I’m one of the few ‘literary types’ who has never read Vonnegut, so I thought now might be a good time to change that. I picked up a copy of While Mortals Sleep, which might be a strange choice considering it’s a collection of his unpublished short fiction, but I figured it’s a place to start.
It was, overall, an enjoyable experience to be invited to Vonnegut’s quaint, quirky world inhabited by an animated refrigerator named Jenny (Jenny), practical jokesters who take things a little too far (Bomar), an unbending rich old family who is destroyed when dance takes a hold of one of their young (Tango), and a self-sacrificing pregnant widow (Ruth). In a neat, crisp style that leaves no loose ends – one is reminded of O.Henry – Vonnegut paints sad little bucolic word-paintings. Although I haven’t read any other Vonnegut writings to allow me to compare, I would imagine that his later writings might have revealed a more world-weary man.
In an incisive, pithy introduction, Dave Eggers describes Vonnegut as a “hippie Mark Twain” who served as a moral voice in a world populated with amoral writers who refuse to take a stance. The collection in While Mortals Sleep certainly attests to that, as a quiet, understated request for compassion in an increasingly inhuman world.