Player Piano

“A psychiatrist could help. There’s a good man in Albany.”

Finnerty shook his head. “He’d pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out there on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” He nodded, “Big, undreamed-of things–the people on the edge see them first.”― Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This is from Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel. I am about halfway through right now. I was talking with my brother about the book and realized I must have read this the first time more than 45 years ago. I don’t recall the whole plot or many of the elements, but I do remember quite a bit of the situations. Unlike some of the later Vonnegut, the writing in this is more conventional in form. Lots of his later stuff is less rigid, even outline-like at times. This is not. It is filled with funny and odd moments, Vonnegut never takes himself seriously in his own work, there is a jolly feel to it, but this book itself is not structured as a series of jokes, as some of his later ones are. 

The book is a reaction to the changes in society that mechanization brought in the 20th century in the U.S. That whole shift from rural to urban is talked about in so much great American literature. I know more now than I did when I read it first but I think lots of what Vonnegut wrote about was a lack of purpose in the world, that a lot of stuff in modern urban life makes little sense. He has a character narrate some of these points and I have forgotten what will happen, so this is a rich and good experience, like reading it the first time. Still, the observations he made are still very valid today. The title, Player Piano, is a nod to people not being in charge of their actions or even desires, that everything in modern life is programmed, individuals don’t really make decisions. There are similar themes throughout his work.

I would recommend this to anyone to read, but I show my age. This was written in the very infancy of the computer age, in the novel some information is stored on punch cards, familiar enough to someone my age but now sold as vintage on Ebay and the like. It won’t really be too long before anyone with first hand knowledge of this technology will be gone. Other stuff that makes perfect sense to me, and things that are supposed to be technologically advanced seem a little silly to read now. It might still be interesting to a millennial, but it would probably not exactly convey what Vonnegut intended. The 21st century reader might see this as too quaint, like the science in Brave New World.  

The ideas in the book though, they are a bit timeless. Still nothing really new under the sun. 

Crisis of Purpose, or, Writing Prompt 11/3

For today’s prompt, have a character quit or surrender.

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He walked across the street, the container of soup hot against his palm. A little had spilled out as he had put the lid on the container, dripping and falling on his shirt as he went up the walk to Eric’s front door. 

“Shit, “ he cursed, and Eric heard him as he had opened the door, as Mike came up

“Not you,” he told him, and  Eric smiled, or tried to through the pain that held him now. 

Mike thought Eric looked even worse than usual. He had been near skeletal for weeks now, but somehow was even more slight than the last time Mike had seen him. His hair stuck awkwardly this way and that, arranged as the pillow on the couch that Mike could see from the doorway had decided. His color had been an off shade of jaundice for a while, but lately there was a purplish caste around his nostrils and lips, looking as if some evil was leaking gently from deep within him.

“The wife wanted to send crackers too, but I knew you had some.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t keep those down probably anyway, but I do still have some.”

Mike passed the soup into Eric’s shaky hands and as he came near the door he noticed a choking funk from within, unwashed clothes and dirty dishes and under all a finality that Mike imagined as the smell of death personified.  

“How are you feeling today?” Eric looked him full in the eyes for the briefest of moments and then looked over his shoulder as he spoke.

“Not so good, my last chemo was two day ago, usually I am feeling a little better now, but this time I still can’t keep anything down, and if it doesn’t come up it comes out the other way.”

Well I am going to the store a little later, you want me to get some Imodium or anything?”

“No, don’t bother, nothing seems to work.”

“Are you going to be able to eat the soup?”

“Probably not right now, but I can heat it up later and try then, right now I can’t do much but lay here on the couch.”

“Ok, well let me know.”

I will and tell Coleen thanks for me, I appreciate it even if I can’t eat it right now.

“Ok, then,” Mike turned away and wondered if he would speak with Eric again.

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These writing prompts are very good for stimulating prose, the group has been a constructive thing. I think it crazy that in 20 minutes something like this can be done with no editing at all. I can’t figure out how a longer work, short story or greater even, is not hard to do, and why I am not doing it. I lived this bit sometime in the week before the writing group, the neighbor is dying. Of course I embellish, and he has good and bad days and is not so near death, but the struggle is the biggest part of his life now. The Docs are trying to get him to a stable place but have not been able to quite yet. They no longer call anything “terminal,” they call it “treatable.” It is beginning to wear him out.

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I have been going through a bit of a crisis of purpose lately. I feel as if I have all the tools I need to write something but have not gotten around to it. I recently read a piece I had written a couple of years ago and thought it very strong. I wonder that I don’t do that all the time. It is funny though, I still don’t know myself as a narrator very well. I think I have a readability without being too taxing.

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Here is a funny bit though. I commented on an entry in a  blog I like, https://skepticskaddish.com/2021/11/08/sneaking-away-from-the-yeshiva/

 where he worked on a prompt for d’Verse prosery, a specific sort of flash fiction. He described it as “written in the voice of a sheltered young man raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave who left the fold.”  I enjoyed what he had written but it was almost all exposition and I commented;

I love you Ben but you need imagery.

He replied;

Joe, please feel free to call me ‘David’ – that’s my first name.
the word ‘ben’ means ‘son of’ in Hebrew – my pen name is confusing, I know… I’m sorry about that.
could you please be more specific about your critique?
Thanks,
David
      

Joe;

Wow, I should have remembered that about the “Ben,” sorry. 
As far as imagery, you just told the Rabbi what you had learned and where it had taken you. “Puncture wounds” and “bombarded” start a little ways down a descriptive path but then sit quietly on a little decorative wrought iron bench, a gentle breeze washing over them carrying the smell of incense and something smoldering, just waiting for some large predator with fetid breath and curved scimitars of yellow teeth dripping dark red abdominal blood from a previous kill to approach, the evil intent clear on their visage as sunlight on water ….
I was mostly just saying “show don’t tell.”

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Completely not my style and it just erupted in response, but confirms a little, to me anyway, that I have something going on.  Stay tuned, I might actually get somewhere.

Inform and Instruct

Tommy and I have discussed the point of writing, what, if anything, it is supposed to mean, or do. For the last decade I have been quoting Richard Russo about the purpose of witting from a bit he wrote in the preface of “The Best American Short Stories of 2010.” He is a novelist known for “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool.” I read “Nobody’s Fool” after my wife and I had watched the excellent movie with Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. It was the last movie Jessica Tandy made and she was good, as was the whole cast. I enjoyed the book when I got to it later, but the movie had some nice things about it as well. I liked them both. I knew Russo’s name from the preface he wrote but had never read anything else he had written until the movie. There was much to like in the novel “Nobody’s Fool.” Offhand I don’t recall any of the stories from that edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” I might if I still had my copy to leaf through, but it went back to the Goodwill. Russo’s preface I remember though, and had thought on now and again through the years.

In the preface he told an interesting story about when he was teaching at SIU and they had brought Isaac Bashevis Singer to campus to speak to the English Department. I was on that campus in 1983 for a semester. I probably would have taken a class with Russo had I stuck around but life took me another way. His success came in 1986, so he was still there teaching when I was there. I thought that interesting when I puzzled it out much later. The lecture with Singer, an author I have not read, ended with a Q and A and a graduate student posed a question to Singer about the purpose of literature, and Rosso recounts Singer’s somewhat dogmatic answer was simply to “entertain and instruct.’ I have been quoting that since I read it, though in my head I thought the instruct was about how to live your life and the entertain was the sugar coating on the lesson to make certain parts more palatable.

Years later I regurgitated that aloud in Frank Grady’s class and he pointed out that sentiment was from the Roman Poet Horace from 2000 years ago and Singer was only repeating what he had been taught. I had not thought on it too much after I had learned it as it seemed to answer my questions on the subject fine. But in my discussions with Tommy I began to wonder if I felt otherwise than the simple maxim. Part of the reason was the quote I have mentioned in the blog, that I had learned from Tommy, the Ulysses quote about before death something noble could be achieved. Another part was a recent quote from a poem in the Edwin Arlington Robinson poetry collection “Children Of The Night.” (Not about Vampires!) I read that the other evening when something sparked my memory about the poem “Richard Cory” that so many English teachers used last century to teach classical poetry construction and rhyming schemes. 

Robinson wrote in one of his poems, 

“To get at the eternal strength of things, 

and fearlessly to make strong songs of it, 

Is, to my mind, the mission of that man 

the world would call a poet.”

He went on about God a little further on and I would say writer or author instead of poet, but I thought he had something there. I am not convinced of the christian god or even some great spirit behind everything, the universe as a deity, self aware or not. But many times when a writer goes on about the glory of some god or another I find it inspiring if I consider that from my way of understanding things they are speaking of simply being alive. It may be that is what I think the purpose of writing is, to celebrate life. I don’t always know my own mind until I reflect on things a little.

And I will have to think on this. I searched for the Horace quote and found this nugget on Goodreads, 

“The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in 

what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life. In instructing, be

brief in what you say in order that your readers may grasp it quickly 

and retain it faithfully. Superfluous words simply spill out when the mind

is already full. Fiction invented in order to please should remain close 

to reality.”

So what Russo wrote that Singer paraphrased was just a bit different straight from Horace. These subtle differences may be important. They also may not.