When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, I remarked in an email thread with friends that “most brilliant was the power of his words to make us aware of the absurdities of life that we take for granted.” Like others here, Vonnegut’s books were among my formative early encounters with literature. Happening upon an unassigned short story in a middle school English class anthology, finishing “The Birds” or whichever story we were to discuss the next day and simply reading on, my interest for some reason piqued by opening lines of this “Harrison Bergeron,” I took my first step into the world of a brilliantly inventive mind. Soon I would discover the range of this creativity, the water-freezing molecules, the people suits, the intelligent computers, but what first grabbed me was the authorial voice, the first time I remember becoming aware of the writing distinct from its content, of style. Vonnegut somehow stood outside his story, without the first-person interjections of a self-imposed narrator, the first time I began to realize that writers were more than conduits, but could be as active in giving shape to a story as a sculptor to his marble, the seeds of my eventual love of Nabokov and David Foster Wallace.
My brother recently mentioned that he was reading Welcome to the Monkey House for the first time, prompting me to revisit the collection, the paperback I’d kept on my shelf through college and half a dozen apartments though I hadn’t cracked its spine since high school, in particular my two favorites, the titular "Welcome to the Monkey House,” and the first I’d read, “Harrison Bergeron.” In an echo of all those years ago, I was again surprised by a sudden new awareness, not this time the discovery of a distinctive voice, though it was still present, but of the disconcerting politics underlying the stories I’d loved so well.
“Harrison Bergeron,” like so many futuristic works is set in a dystopia, this one vaguely familiar, life only changing in the details a hundred years on. There’s a new world government, to be sure, managing a system of enforced lowest-denominator egalitarianism—weighted bag worn to weigh down the graceful and loud noises transmitted to distract the clever so as to ensure no one is any better than anyone else—but television is still the primary media, so how different can things be? Mr. and Mrs. Bergeron watch a performance of hobbled-to-mediocrity ballerinas that is interrupted to announce that their son, Harrison, a super-intelligent, super-strong, super-handsome superman, has escaped his confinement, for the crime of being better. Harrison then breaks into the television studio, frees one of the ballerinas, they dance a magical dance and are shot dead for their rebellion. The Bergerons, unable to concentrate for long due to their hobbles, return to their lives vaguely sad but unaware. To thirteen-year-old me, this was captivating. But now it reads like Ayn Rand’s nightmare with all the off-putting attendant paranoia of conspiratorial governments waiting in the wings to strike down these supposed ubermensch that has fueled a few too many Tea Party rallies.
“Welcome to the Monkey House” fares even worse in a re-visit. Again the specter of a controlling dystopia hangs over the setting, a dangerously overpopulated future nation, but here the dominating forces are puritanical, solving the population threat by standardizing drugs that numb people from the waist down, neutering the libido. As the story opens, a notorious bandit, Billy the Poet, known for rejecting the numbing pills and deflowering beautiful women, a doubly horrifying prospect when they only know sex to be sensation-less, is threatening to abduct a beautiful euthanasia provider. He foils her police protection, kidnaps her and follows through on his usual M.O. However, ironic surprise, he becomes our hero: his band of helpers made up of other women he has won over by revealing to them the missing potentials of human experience, never captured because his victims purposely mislead the police so he may ride on in his mission. It’s a celebration of sexual freedom in the face of moralizing killjoys. However, it’s also a disturbing presentation of rape as a heroic deed, the implication that because the women have joined his cause, Billy the Poet is justified. Values change over time and this story is decades old, but it was shocking to realize how blithely my middle school self had taken this plot.
Problematic as their values are, these stories do manage to avoid the depths of Rand’s jaw-clenchingly bad prose or Tucker Max’s bald misogyny on two strengths. Vonnegut’s oh-so distinct voice remains slightly incredulous throughout, wry enough never to push the stories into polemics. Detailing the strange ways in which the future of “Monkey House” has changed the world we know, he can still take a moment to marvel that the United States nonetheless manages to resist the metric system. The subtle humor cuts the sting of the underlying ideas, neutering them somewhat. Vonnegut’s characters also prominently find utility in art: the sole act Harrison Bergeron manages upon breaking free is to dance, a performance Vonnegut describes as though it stops time, and Billy the Poet quotes Shakespeare to his victim, abruptly changing face with a display of tenderness. These moments add a touch of sensitivity to the stories, serving to slightly sand down the stories’ rougher edges, not forgiving them entirely, but creating a degree of balance out of this tension.