Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers
Richard Brautigan, The Tokyo-Montana Express
Will Hermes, The King of New York
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
H.P Lovecraft. The Complete Fiction
Charles Shields, And So It Goes
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
This was a tough month for reading — book reading, at least — due to travel and other distractions. I did get through two New Yorkers, which leaves me with 4 in the pile. Fortunately the subscription lapsed so I have all the time in the world for those.
In the end I finished only one book in October, and it was one I’d read before, though it felt entirely new. Player Piano was Vonnegut’s first novel, vintage 1952, and though it started a little slow — he was not quite the lean, mean writing machine he would become — I found myself really getting into it. And its portrait of a world where automation has put most of the human race out of work felt incredibly au courant in this age of AI anxiety.
From my reading in And So It Goes, I know now that the Ilium Works — the technological u/dystopia where the novel’s protagonist, Paul Proteus, works — is a thinly veiled version of General Electric’s Schnectady Works, where young Kurt Vonnegut was employed. And Proteus is a version of Vonnegut at that time: He appears to be set for life in a job that most people would envy, but he is discontented. To walk in corporate lockstep is not in his nature.
Vonnegut would end up quitting his job to become a freelance writer, which was a huge risk even then, when selling stories to magazines was a viable source of income. Proteus finds himself — not entirely voluntarily — getting involved with a revolutionary movement called the Ghost Shirt Society, after the garb of the Ghost Dance, the subject of Vonnegut’s aborted M.A. thesis.
The revolution is not successful. Instead of carefully distinguishing between good and bad technology, as Proteus and his co-conspirators intend, the hoi polloi drunkenly and indiscriminately wreck everything. This is pretty elitist but feels realistic. As the novel ends, the populace has become happily engaged in the project of cobbling together new machines from the wreckage, as the leaders of the Society surrender to the authorities, presumably for execution. I think this is what qualifies as a happy ending for Vonnegut.
I had sat down Player Piano to sip my Americano one day when a young lady came up to me, drawn by the name “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” on the cover. Apparently she thought it was a book by Kurt Vonnegut’s son. After I clarified she said that the only Vonnegut she’d ever read was Slapstick, which struck me as unfortunate; I recommended Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions as better starting points. I wonder if she ever followed up.
On other fronts: I feel like I should apologize to Bruce Chatwin, whose The Songlines I just can’t seem to make serious headway in, despite thinking it an excellent book. I picked it up the other day because I needed something to read in the ER, and it happened to be the only book in the car. I made it through a couple chapters but still have a long way to go.
And finally, it was Halloween week. Every year around this time for the last… um… I dunno how many years, I’ve dug out the massive H.P. Lovecraft tome that I bought in a moment of caffeinated enthusiasm way back when. It’s a gorgeous volume:
After all this time I’m maybe a quarter of the way through it. Part of the problem is just the physical awkwardness of it as an object, which makes one feel scholarly and learned for about five minutes, but gets old quick; and partly I just don’t seem to like H.P. Lovecraft. But then I’ve never gotten past the early works to the more famous ones, At the Mountains of Madness and such. Maybe I’ll be inspired to make some headway in the long stretch of rainy days that we appear to have coming.
But no apologies to H.P. Lovecraft, who was a racist asshole, I’m told. I’ll read the rest when and if I feel like it. So there.