Monday, March 21, 2011

While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut

At the urging of Citizen Reader, I read While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut with a Foreward by Dave Eggers. I have enjoyed a few Vonnegut novels and stories before and the book was on my list, so convincing me to move it to the top was easy. Once I started reading, I kept reading, only stopping to go to work, get the latest news from Japan, or get some sleep. During pauses, I plotted reading the early Vonnegut books that my friend Pete Midkiff recommended years ago. Reading begets more reading.

In his Foreward, Eggers calls Vonnegut's pieces "mousetrap stories," short stories that have surprising plot twists and offer a moral in the end. These were fashionable in popular American magazines in the 1950s, the time at which Vonnegut was working as a public relations man for General Electric by day and writing at night. Since that time short story authors have written more realistic, ambiguous pieces that emphasize character over plot. Eggers thinks Vonnegut's previously unpublished stories are refreshing after reading so much work (including his own) in which authors shy away from making any moral judgments.

Trying to discover whether there is a story behind why the pieces in While Mortals Sleep were unpublished, I found a good number of serious reviews that suggested that they should have remained unseen by general readers. "Immature," "unpolished," "feeble," and "empty" seem to be some of the words used by reviewers. Several thought that Vonnegut had probably decided himself that they were failed pieces, perhaps after being unable to sell them. The unstated charge is that the Vonnegut estate is shamefully converting the author's legacy to cash, something he would not do. Or would he? Read "Money Talks."

Perhaps I like the stories because I am inclined to like the stories, but like them I do. My favorites are the title story, "Ruth," and "The Humbugs." Despite their lack of polish, they engaged me and made me wish for more. Readers as a rule will be more forgiving than critics who are paid to criticize. I think it is a good addition to most public library collections.

Vonnegut, Kurt. While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction. Delacourt Press, 2011. ISBN 9780385343732.


Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested in my blog about writing the Kurt biography due out in November:


Charles J. Shields

Citizen Reader said...

Great review, Rick!
I also enjoyed this book because the guy who checked it out to me at the library wanted to talk about it. I love when the circ folks talk books with me, and this was an easy book to talk about.

Interestingly enough, I'm reading Andre Dubus III's Townie, and Kurt Vonnegut just made an appearance in it.