“Vonnegut Short Story Madness” – Report from the War Regional

As usual, my blogging plans turned out to be way too ambitious when confronted with my limited free time. I originally had hoped to post about each story “matchup” in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” project, but now I’m going to try to write a post about each region. This post is about the War region.

My favorite pair of first round stories was “Souvenir” from Bagombo Snuff Box, and “Spoils” from Armageddon in Retrospect. The two stories are somewhat similar and deal with a topic that also came up last week at my Great Books Discussion Group. We were actually discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” (worth a read also, by the way) and we somehow got on a sidebar of how commonly we hear of war veterans who “never talk about” their war experiences. I have an uncle like that, and another member of the group mentioned an in-law who had recently passed away and whose multiple decorations for valor were on display at the service. The member of our group, though he had known this man for many years, had “no idea” that he had been so honored.

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WARNING: following content includes SPOILERS.

In the story “Souvenir,” a man (“Eddie”) hard up for cash decides to sell a “fantastic” pocket watch he’d “acquired” near the end of World War II. He wants five-hundred dollars for it, but the shady pawnbroker, to whom dealing and trading in such items was a game he played with relish and without mercy, begins to tirelessly haggle with him. He asks about the inscription on the watch, which neither can read since it is in German. He transcribes it onto a notepad and dispatches it off to a neighbor for a quick translation. Eddie then proceeds to tell the story of its acquisition, somewhere in Sudetenland near the very end of the war. A story where two German soldiers, a young blond man and an alleged General, try to surrender to Eddie and his buddy, Buzzer. The “surrender” is actually a ploy to kill Eddie and Buzzer for their uniforms in hopes that the Germans can then escape by passing themselves off as Americans. They originally pretend they are offering to buy the uniforms, first with German money (“Confederate Money!” as Buzzer complains) and later with the General’s watch, encrusted with four diamonds, a ruby, and gold.

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Eddie and his friend are slow to catch on to the ploy, a slowness that costs Buzzer his life. Eddie, however, escapes with the pocket watch, which he has held onto until now. Re-living the experience leads Eddie to realize he doesn’t want to part with the watch, which we now understand was purchased at a great price indeed. He tells the pawnbroker, “Thanks for letting me know what it’s worth. Makes more sense to keep it as a souvenir.” The pawnbroker offers him his original price of $500 as Eddie is leaving the store. After he leaves, the translation is brought back from the neighbor: “To General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the third German Reich – Adolf Hitler.”

(below: General Guderian on the cover of Time Magazine; he actually survived the war, and was, controvesially, not prosecuted for war crimes (as many others were) – apparently, his actions were deemed those of a professional soldier.

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Now, wasn’t I just speaking of twist endings in a recent post? Vonnegut liked to call these twists “mousetraps.”

Armageddon in Retrospect

The other story, “Spoils” tugs harder at the heart strings. “Paul” is another soldier who had once found himself in those mad, final days of the war. Now home long after the war, his wife has just returned from visiting a neighbor and tells him of the neighbor’s elegant silver service that she learned the husband had “liberated” from Germany at the end of the war. She shrewishly asks Paul why he “couldn’t have brought home something a little better” than he did (all he has is a bent Luftwaffe saber). He reminisces how “his first hours as a swashbuckling conqueror were his last,” and ponders “the thing that broke his spirit and … that tormented him” as he enters the realm of memory… He and his buddies are in the farming village of Peterswald, which is the midst of evacuation and then industrial scale looting. His comrades and encounter some Scotchmen participating in the looting who say, “You’re the victors, you know, you’ve a bloody good right to anything you like.”

His small band becomes swept up in the fervor and they select a house to pillage, but it has already been pretty much picked clean by others. The only thing intact is a child’s room with its toys and a lonely pair of children’s crutches. They eventually abandon their hopes of treasure and decide instead to focus on dinner, contemplating a feast including chicken, milk, eggs and “maybe even a rabbit.” They begin to scour the farms to prepare their table. Paul searches the barn of the house they had attempted to ransack, at first finding nothing, but – just as he’s about to leave – he hears a rustling under some hay. There a rabbit has been hidden in a cage. Dinner! He quickly dispatches and skins and cleans the rabbit there in the barn and brings the main course to his friends. Not before he sees the family who owns the house return, though.

A “wave of remorse and sorrow billows in his chest” as he watches the boy enter the barn. Soon he hears the boy’s faint shriek and sees him emerge from the barn holding the lifeless pelt of his former pet rabbit to his cheek. Paul mentions nothing of this to his friends, and eats what for him must’ve been a joyless meal with them.

During the final days of the war, Paul’s friends acquired a sizable quantity of German treasure but “for some reason, all Paul brought home was one rusty and badly bent Luftwaffe saber.”

Wow.

So, I awarded this matchup to the story “Spoils.” The final results of the “War Regional” are below. In the end, the regional champion turned out to be the story, “The Manned Missiles,” which, though it was tragic as well, also included hope. Hope for humanity and perhaps even for an end to war. I wrote about that story once before on my blog. You may find that post here if you’re interested.

Next up, results from The Love Regional. Stay tuned

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The Town of Cats

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(Hagiwara Sakutaro)

Most “artists” have a chosen field or medium in which they specialize. Painting, music, sculpting, dancing, literature, etc. Some further narrow their focus to a particular discipline within the broader categories. Japan’s Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) chose poetry. I haven’t read any of his poems yet, but I was intrigued that his tale “The Town of Cats” was the only short story he ever wrote. I wondered what was so special about what he wanted to say that made him stray from his normal form just this one time. Maybe he did write poems about the phenomenon he describes in “The Town of Cats” and he just wanted to expound on the idea at length. I don’t know, but – whatever the reasons were – I’m so glad he did, as the result was this enchanting story…

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“The Town of Cats”

I drew the two of spades from my short story deck Saturday morning. Since “deuces are wild” this year in my short story project, I looked for an “at large” story that fit my spades criteria (stories of a darker nature). I went to my new go-to anthology: “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” [discovered by me via at Nina’s Blog where she once wrote a (much more eloquent post than mine will be) on this same story.] and selected this story, now perhaps my favorite thus far this year.

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The narrator of the story is, like the author, a former user of psychotropic drugs who was fond of the hallucinatory journeys he used to take, saying:

“In the past, I often undertook wondrous voyages in my own personal way. Let me explain… I would reach that unique moment in which humankind sometimes finds itself able to soar – that special moment outside the chain of cause and effect – and it would adroitly navigate the borderline between dreams and reality to play in an uninhibited world of my own making.”

As he ages, his body begins to pay the price for this drug abuse, and he has to stop. He discovers, though, that his innate lack of a sense of direction affords him a capacity to undertake similar “wondrous voyages” simply by getting lost and coming upon known places from an unfamiliar direction or with a novel perspective.

This ability reaches its zenith when he is vacationing at a hot springs resort in the Hoketsu region. Already armed with knowledge of local myths and folklore (which, as you might expect from the title, included legends that “the spirits of dogs possessed the inhabitants of one particular settlement, while cats possessed another.”) the narrator predictably loses his way and becomes totally lost in an area truly unknown to him. In his searching to find his way back to the resort, he comes upon a city “so special, so unusual!” He speculates that the town’s “artistic feel had evolved naturally as the town gradually weathered and developed a elegant patina that reflected its age.” Soon he comes to an understanding that this city is like a delicate crystal, held together by the collective effort and concentration of its inhabitants, and also that “a loss of balance, even for a moment, would have dashed the entire thing to smithereens.”

This realization makes him extremely anxious, and he becomes aware that the equilibrium of the city is about to be disturbed. “Something strange was about to happen! Something had to happen!” What happens is that a small black rat dashed into the center of the road, precipitating a transformation of the towns inhabitants to cats “great packs of cats materialized everywhere, filling all the roads around me… everywhere I looked there was nothing but cats!” He is stunned and wonders if what he’s observing is part of a “real” world. The spell is soon broken, however as his normal senses return to him.

“The mysterious, perplexing town of a moment ago had vanished without a trace. An entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card* had been turned over to reveal its other side.”

This story and its ending reminded me a little of the old tale of the Chinese philosopher who fell asleep and dreamt he was a butterfly and, upon awakening, was never again sure if he was a man who had once dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. I suppose it’s possible that our realities are held together by our descriptions of them, but it’s just as possible that one could go crazy thinking about these things (this is why I avoid studying philosophy!). I was also reminded of what one of his Yaqui Indian friends told Carlos Castaneda (yes, I once read those books): that “There are worlds upon worlds right in front of us.”

Have you read anything by Sakutaro? I guess it’s either this, or his poetry, huh? I had never heard of him before I learned of this story, but maybe I will try some of his poetry.

*Perhaps the card Sakutaro is referring to is…the two of spades…? 🙂

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The Elegance of a Well-Turned Twist

A couple weeks ago, for my short story reading project, I read Guy de Maupassant’s famous tale, “The Necklace.” Last night, another reading/discussion group that I participate in met to discuss Sartre’s “The Wall.” Both of these stories end with an ironic twist, the former likely being one of the more famous in literature. This left me pondering the device of the “twist” and how it has almost become a cliche over the years in short fiction, with some readers even feeling that a good story isn’t complete without one. I suppose we have, in part, O’Henry to thank for that…

The twist is prevalent in other forms of art too, and here I’m thinking of tv and film. It seemed few episodes of “The Twilight Zone” were complete until that little twist at the end – often accompanied the well-placed tinkle of piano keys as Burgess Meredith drops his glasses or sometimes by an in-your-face exclamation (“It’s a cookbook!”)

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“The Necklace” is a quick and easy read, and available online if you’d like to spend the ten or fifteen minutes it takes to read before proceeding (since I am going to spoil it for you, otherwise). http://www.bartleby.com/195/20.html

This is the story of Mathilde, a “pretty and charming girl, born by a blunder into a family of employees.” Her charm would suggest that she belonged to a higher station in life than that which it fell to her to inhabit. In one great moment, her husband is invited to a ball, and she at last has a chance to shine, which she does brilliantly, thanks in part to a “diamond” necklace she has borrowed from a rich acquaintance, Madame Forrester.

When the ball is over and they return home, she realizes to her horror that the necklace has been lost. It will take years of toil and labor and aggressive saving to repay the money they must borrow to buy a replacement. Being good citizens, this is what they do, their life a continual hardship under the burden of this debt, and it is only when they are finally out from underneath it that they learn that Madame Forrester’s diamonds were imitation and their value but a hundredth of what Mathilde and her husband have paid to replace it! (queue those tinkling piano keys from the Twilight Zone here)

I recalled also, after reading, that the classic American TV comedy, The Andy Griffith Show, shamelessly ripped off the plot twist in a 1968 episode. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Young Opie gets a job at the town drugstore and, while cleaning, knocks over and breaks an expensive (or so he thinks) bottle of perfume. He scrimps and saves to buy a replacement, only to later learn from the boss that what he broke was just a “display” bottle, containing only water.

(below: proud employee Opie Taylor – before disaster strikes…)

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So, here’s my question for you: what are some of your favorite literary twists? Do you think the twist is an over-used plot device, or do you enjoy a good twist as much as “the next guy?”

(Other famous twists: a pretzel, Alexander the Great’s Gordian Knot, and Chubby Checker’s dance…)

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He Was Last Heard from in Mexico in 1914…*

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Ambrose Bierce’s “The Man and the Snake”

“A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether needless.”

This story may be read for free on-line at http://www.online-literature.com/poe/174/

My granddad would NOT have liked this story. Among his possessions was a life-long hatred for snakes. Once, he recoiled from a gift my parents had bought for him when they travelled in Australia – an aboriginal boomerang with snakes among the painted figures along its length (not what’s pictured below, but you get the idea). It was then we realized how truly powerful his hatred – and fear – of snakes was.

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The main character in this short story, Harker Drayton, is above such an irrational fear as the one that possessed my granddad. Or so he thinks.

He is staying at the house of a friend who is a herpetologist – and who also has a small menagerie on the premises where many exotic snakes are kept. Braxton is reading by the light of a small gas jet in a mostly darkened room one evening, when he lowers the book to his lap and sees two points of light “about an inch apart” shining back at him from across the room. After a few moments he realizes they’re the eyes of a snake, doubtless a fugitive from his host’s menagerie.

His eyes are held by the gaze of his intruder and he ponders the myth that reptiles have the power of a kind of hypnosis over their victims. Not wishing to make any sudden movements to antagonize the snake, he resolves to arise slowly and inch his way out of the room. Much to his surprise – and horror! – he realizes that his body will only inch FORWARD, toward the snake.The final two pages of this very short story describe his struggle against the animal’s magnetic power over him, followed by its ending and the later discovery by his host and wife, brought to the room by an alarming sound.

It was a good little story, with a neat little twist, but it doesn’t rank among my favorites from this year’s project; this story was represented by the nine of spades – drawn by me saturday morning from my deal me in short story project deck.

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What will next week bring? (and I know I have failed to write about many of my stories from this year, but I have hopes of combining several mini-reviews into one post in order to catch up. I have, at least, been keeping up with my one story per week pace so far in 2013)

*The death and disappearance of Ambrose Bierce is one of the great American literary mysteries. Some day I’d like to read more about this. Does anyone know of a good source? Update 3/2014 Paula Cappa tipped me off to this site which has some info on the many theories about his disappearance.

(below: Ambrose Bierce’s house in Washington, D.C.)

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“Vonnegut Short Story Madness!” Early Round Matchups – Part I

I made it through eight stories in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” game the first weekend of March, and eight more this past weekend.  Time to start catching up with the results.  Instead of playing through one regions , I randomly selected one matchup from each region. My first was from the “Love” region, featuring “Girl Pool” vs. “Runaways.” The former is found in the collection “While Mortals Sleep,” and the latter in “Bagombo Snuff Box” (if you’re playing along at home).

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This is my first time doing anything like this; although I sometimes rate books on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 stars, I have never necessarily tried to rate and compare two works against each other. I immediately realized it’s unfair, as you often can’t use the same criteria for both stories since they may have been written for different purposes or in different styles. Be that as it may, I reminded myself that this was a game and “just for fun” and pressed on.

I read “Girl Pool” first, and perhaps was influenced by my excitement in getting started on the project. I loved the story immediately and began thinking, “Geez, it’s going to be tough to beat!”

***SPOILER ALERT*** Briefly,”Girl Pool” is a story told by a man about his now wife, “Amy Lou” who works in a gigantic corporation’s ‘girl pool’ – a reservoir of secretarial workers whose daily existence consists mostly of transcribing letters and such from a endless stream of tapes from, predominantly, the men in the company. Amy Lou works for the officious Miss Hostetter, who Vonnegut describes a “great elk of a woman, righteous, healthy and strong.”

As you might guess, the drudgery of her work quickly wears on Amy Lou, who is at heart a romantic. She feels “no sign of life” at the job until the excitement of the news that Larry Barrow, a fugitive (and wounded) murderer, is rumored to be hiding somewhere in the vast acreage of the corporation. Resourceful, he sees on a corporate bulletin board about how the girl pool is at the service of anyone with a dictaphone machine. He finds one and dispatches a plea for help.

Amy Lou is the lucky employee who receives this message in a bottle and resolves to bring some food to the remote building where Barrow is hiding out. Later, though, she discovers that the particular dictaphone tape, which had hidden in her desk drawer, is now missing. A quick search discovers that it is now in Miss Hostetter’s desk. Afraid that Miss Hostetter will turn him in, she hurries to the building with a care package of candy bars to take to Barrow. She is shocked to find Miss Hostetter already at the building. It seems she is a softie at heart as well, and is on a similar errand of mercy!

Sadly, Barrow has died before they got there, but the two workers now have a new understanding of each other, and hopefully the dawn of a new, more pleasant work environment for Amy Lou is in order. On her way home, waiting for the bus, Amy Lou runs into the narrator of the story. Initially maintaining the “impersonal bus stop distance” with each other Amy Lou suddenly bursts into tears, leaning into the narrator who says, “My gosh, another human being!”

What chance did the story, “Runaways” have against a great story like that? I felt sorry for it while reading, since I knew it “stood no chance” against such a strong performance. Though an underdog, it made a game of it for awhile, though. “Runaways” is about young love. Teenage love, featuring Annie, the daughter of the governor of Indiana, and her young beau, Rice Brentner, the proud new owner of a car. They run away together only to be tracked down and returned to their families, Annie to the Governor’s mansion (Vonnegut grew up just a few blocks from the real Indiana governor’s mansion) and Rice to “the other side of the tracks.” Brentner won’t be denied, however, and phones Annie pretending to be a more “suitable” boy from her own social circle so that her parents will let her come to the phone. In no time,they are off again, speeding across the state line and into Ohio before they are caught this time. Thinking they’re in even more trouble than before, they are shocked when a message from the governor says, “you are to return home in your own car whenever you feel like it.” Ah, the old reverse psychology gambit… It works in this case, though. The kids realize they’re not ready and the parents win this round.

(below: the Indiana Governor’s Mansion – “just down the street” from where Vonnegut lived as a boy)

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One thing I liked about this story was how Vonnegut wove song lyrics into the narrative. Of course, these were all subversive song lyrics, encouraging teenagers to wildness and delinquency. I don’t know if they’re from real songs or if Vonnegut made them up. I suspect the latter; that would be more like him.

So, I’m awarding this first round matchup to “Girl Pool,” which will move on to face the winner of “A Night for Love” and “Find Me a Dream.”

The second of the matches I’ll cover in this post is “Epicac” (the story of a ‘nerd’ and a computer who both fall in love with the same girl) vs. “The Powder Blue Dragon” from the technology region. I wrote about Epicac at length before here (check out the sonnet in the post, exspecially), and thought this would be a rout, but the other story nearly pulled off the upset.

“The Powder Blue Dragon” is about Kiah Higgins, a lower-class orphan boy who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, working three jobs, the primary of which was in an car dealership and service shop. He has somehow saved enough money to buy the most powerful car available, the exotic-sounding Marittima-Frascati (a name made up by Kurt Vonnegut, who once ran a Saab Dealership on Cape Cod – the first in America).

(below: some of Kurt Vonnegut’s drawings on his old Saab dealership stationery)

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Kiah feels owning this car will be his ticket to acceptance. When he first gets behind the wheel of the car out on the turnpike he “ceased to feel like an intruder in the universe.” He soon learns that, outside of the car, he is still viewed as just a boy and is not taken seriously or given respect. He even tries, though bragging about his car, to make time with a rich girl who, when her actual boyfriend arrives and she says to Kiah, why don’t you tell Paul about your Vanilla Frappe.

I liked Kiah’s character a lot, but the story “Epicac” had a little more going for it, I thought, so it moves on and will be matched with the winner of “ThePackage” and “2BR02B” in the round of sixteen.  In other first round match-ups: In the “War” region,  The Manned Missiles (previously posted about here) defeated the comical Der Arme Dolmetscher from Armageddon in Retrospect and in the Humanity region, Deer in the Works (previously posted about here) defeated Custom Made Bride (previously mentioned here).  I’ll probably wait to post updated brackets until the first round is completed…  The starting brackets may be found in the original post.

My Personal “March Madness”

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I’ve always loved games. Since I was a child, I’ve rarely been without a current game “relationship.” Some were/are long running (chess, trivia) and some flared up brightly and then quickly burned out (e.g., poker). I also spend a lot (too much, if you’ve got to know the truth) of time and effort as a fan (football, basketball, chess, tennis, or sometimes just whatever’s available at the time). If there wasn’t a game to be found, I’d invent one. (and yes, of course, the above is from the classic movie, “Wargames,” starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy)

This month, I’m going to try a “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” game. I’ve picked 32 of his short stories, sorted them into four regions (Love, War, Technology, and Humanity) and throughout the month will pit them against each other in a single-elimination competition for my reading affections to determine my “2013 favorite”…

My plan is to write about each “matchup” and justify my selection of the “winner.” The further the stories advance in my “tournament” the more detailed the write ups may become. Maybe, if I have time, I will read the stories yet again for each new round of the tournament. I know, I know, I can hear the “Nerd Alert!” sirens blaring, but it should also be fun…

I will also welcome lobbying from my fellow citizens of Bibliophilopolis, and am willing to be swayed if the argument is convincing. Just add a comment in support of a story that’s one of your favorites – or rake me over the coals for eliminating another!

All the stories may be found in the following four Vonnegut short story collections:

Welcome to the Monkey House
While Mortals Sleep
Bagombo Snuff Box
Armageddon in Retrospect

By my count, these collections include 75 stories, but I picked the 32 I remembered enjoying at least to some degree.

Below are my “regional brackets” (seeding is not quite random), and the winners of each region will meet in my Vonnegut Short Story Final Four. I’ll try to summarize a bracket’s round 1 results every four days or so, then slow down the pace a little for the later rounds. If this project works out, I already am contemplating a “Ray Bradbury Short Story Madness” next year. 🙂

What do YOU think of my new game?

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