We Are What We Pretend to Be – Vonnegut’s “Alpha and Omega” Stories

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I just finished reading the second half of this book, which purports to contain author Kurt Vonnegut’s “first and last works.” I already posted about the first one, “Basic Training,” which I enjoyed. The second one was not as well received – by this reader anyway.

The second novella, “If God Were Alive Today,” is the rambling story of Gil Berman, a brilliant but greatly troubled comedian. To me it was too much of a re-telling of themes that we regular readers of Vonnegut have encountered many times before. This one was unfinished as of the author’s death in 2007, and I think you can tell.

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“Excuse me, stewardess, I speak Vonnegut” (taking some liberties with June Cleaver’s – er, Barbara Billingsley’s dialogue in Airplane)

What it did contain, however, was something I’ve noted at the meetings of The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. Vonnegut comes up with (often hilarious) new definitions for commonplace things. I threatened before to “come up with a quiz” including some of these so here it is:

Do YOU speak “Vonnegut?”

Match the term Vonnegut uses with the “real life” word or words. Admittedly,some of these are just traditional ’similes’ I guess, but nonetheless, lets see how you do…  (I’ll post the ‘answer key’ as a comment in a few days)

vonnegut matching

Oh and I also learned a new word from this novella. Do you know what puttees are? You’ve seen them. They are the leggings frequently worn by British soldiers in World War I (see picture below)

Woolwraps

“…I’ll always say it was a library card that killed them…”

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This tantalizingly mysterious quotation is from the novella, “Basic Training,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Yes, he later drops the “Jr.” from his books, but this one was written before he made that change, so I’ll include it here). Written while Vonnegut was working as a PR man for General Electric, this novella was originally rejected by publishers of that time, The Saturday Evening Post among them. Published for the first time in 2012 in electronic format by Rosetta Books, it initially took the top spot in Amazon’s kindle charts. Now, it has been combined with the author’s “last” (unfinished) work, “If God Were Alive Today,” and published as “We Are What We Pretend to Be.” This combination book is the July selection for the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis.

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(picture from wikipedia)

Basic Training is the story of a youth, Haley Brandon, who has moved to live and work on a farm owned by his uncle, a rigid and hyper-organized man referred to even by his own family as “The General.” Haley’s new “household” consists of The General, his three daughters, and a hired hand, Mr. Banghart, who is a great worker but also seemingly unstable. Haley, a musician by training and aspiration, finds the work of baling and stacking hay backbreaking and one of his cousins irresistible. He chafes under the draconian rules and “punishments” meted out by The General (i.e., sleeping with no pillow for two weeks!) and eventually flys the coop after he and the farmhand are involved in a costly accident and fear general’s wrath. The refugee’s sojourn in Chicago is eventful to say the least.
(below: Chicago of 1950; postcard found at http://chuckmancollectionvolume15.blogspot.com)

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Oh, you may be wondering about the quotation in the title of this blog post… early on in the story the General is telling the story of another young man “a lot like” Haley, who seemed destined for greatness because of his “well-readedness.”

“He was always reading books, books, books – anything he could get his hands on. We used to ask him to come fishing or to play baseball, and things like that, and he always had she same answer: ‘No thanks, I just got a new book that looks very interesting.’ Sometimes he’d forget to stop reading for meals. By the time he was fifteen, he knew more about the royal family of Siam and the slum problem in Vladivostok than I knew about the back of my hand. All his teachers swore he was a genius, and said he’d be at least President of the United States when he was thirty-five.”

When World War II broke out, he was of course made an officer, but when the going got tough, he “cracked up immediately” since he “didn’t know the first thing about leadership,” which led to a whole company being wiped out – a tragedy the General blamed, naturally, on the man’s life of reading as opposed to action.

The story plucks many elements from Vonnegut’s own early life where, as a sixteen-year old boy, he would frequently ride to “the Rainbow Farm” of his father’s cousin, just outside of Indianapolis. The young Vonnegut was also in love with one of the farmer’s daughters and went to do work on the farm just to be close to her. This information is shared with us in the delightful introduction to the book, written by the author’s daughter, Nanette. In my “drive-by research,” I wasn’t able to find where this novella was still on sale by itself, but the combined book may be found at: http://www.amazon.com/We-Are-What-Pretend-To/dp/1593157436

Have you read this novella or book? How do you feel about all these authors whose unpublished works continue to leak out long after the authors have passed away?