“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.

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“EPICAC” (no, not “ipecac”)

This is the title of yet another of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s the story of an operator for some behemoth-ic government-owned computer called EPICAC. I’m sure this name is intentionally similar to both “UNIVAC” (an actual early generation computing machine) and ipecac – as in the well known emetic, “syrup of ipecac.” The computer operator apparently has the hots for one of his co-workers (described as a “crackerjack mathematician”) who won’t give him the time of day because he’s unromantic and boring. Imagine that – not too different from a current stereotype, huh?

By the way, If this story sounds somewhat familiar to you, it may be because it was in part appropriated by Rod Serling and Bernard Schoenfeld for a 1964 episode of the tv series “The Twilight Zone” titled “From Agnes – with Love.” (***Spoiler Alert***) In that story, however, the computer actually falls for the operator, not the girl.

In the Vonnegut story, however, the computer innocently asks of the operator (never named in the story) “what’s the trouble?” and the hapless guy explains about the girl, Pat. After getting some background information (“what’s girl?”, “what’s love?”) EPICAC helps the operator by writing a long, wonderful poem which the operator passes off to her as his own. Pat is predictably impressed and begins to see the operator in a new light. They share a kiss and later he asks the computer to write another poem about the kiss. This time it’s a short and beautiful, “immaculate sonnet”

“Love is a hawk with velvet claws
Love is a rock with heart and veins;
Love is a lion with satin jaws,
Love is a storm with silken reins.”

I have to say that’s pretty good for a computer, eh? I wonder what Ray Kurzweil’s cyber poet would think of that? Would it give up and unplug itself?

Anyway, things proceed swimmingly and the operator begins to think about marriage. After talking with EPICAC and explaining the situation (“what’s marriage?”), the machine agrees that Pat is a worthy candidate for matrimony and says “I’m ready whenever she is.” The operator is taken aback and tries to explain to the computer the impossibility of such a marriage (sprinkling in a few lies to make his case more palatable to his “friend” the machine – he says he is made out of protoplasm and will last forever, and says a woman cannot love a machine – that it’s fate, which he also has to define) In the end, the machine “can’t go on” (“I don’t want to be a machine. I don’t want to think about war.” – the latter is his primary function) and sort of burns itself out when “left on” overnight by the operator (nothing like that tight government security, huh?). The operator is fired from his job for his neglect, but also cleans up many rolls of printed tape (this is how EPICAC communicated with its users) from the room. He discovers that it contains a going away present from the computer: 500 years of anniversary poems for him to give his wife. How sad. I felt a pity for the machine not too dissimilar to that which I felt for Frankenstein’s monster when reading that classic a couple months ago.

Have you read this story? Do you remember the “classic” Twilight Zone episode?

(below: actor Wally Cox in “From Agnes – with Love” 1964)