“The cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac,” Hanif Kureishi has a character say in The Buddha of Suburbia, “is reread him at thirty-eight.” If that was true, I wondered as I opened the first two volumes of the Library of America’s ongoing series of the complete novels, then what of Vonnegut at a decade older still? The two are linked, of course, as items on the syllabus of adolescent male samizdat that used to go like this: Mad magazine at 13, Vonnegut at 15, Salinger at 17, Hunter Thompson at 18, Kerouac at 20. (When you got real big, you read Kundera.)
Well, if I’ve grown older and more respectable, then so has Kurt Vonnegut. Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? They were part of the mystique. Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance? There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted. “It was about firing a spaceship with a warhead full of jizzum at Andromeda.” But never mind; the words cast their spell, the layout is forgotten and Kureishi’s question is answered. No, not cruel. Some of them are worse than I remembered, but some of them are even better.
The volumes begin with Player Piano (1952), a novel that owes its existence, as Charles J. Shields explains in And So It Goes, to Vonnegut’s time in the public relations department at General Electric. (Shields’s biography is badly written and none too penetrating in its literary insights, but it seems to have been thoroughly researched and is, in any case, the only one we have so far.) After a few increasingly sour years puffing nuclear power and home appliances—“Progress Is Our Most Important Product,” went the company slogan—Vonnegut decided to imagine what the future General Electric was trying to create would actually look like.
As its title suggests, Player Piano describes a society in which the vast majority of people have been rendered obsolete by machines. Everything is automated, and a privileged caste of engineers, selected through a ruthless system of aptitude testing, runs the show. The average person, benevolently provided for by his betters, lacks nothing other than purpose, dignity, self-respect and meaningful labor. The novel’s prescience is chilling. Six years before the left-wing English sociologist Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that coined that now-ubiquitous final word, Vonnegut was already there. “He just finished his National General Classification Tests,” says a character about his son. “He didn’t do nearly well enough for college. There were only twenty-seven openings, and six hundred kids trying for them.” With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity, the novel is, if anything, more relevant than ever now. It poses Vonnegut’s essential question: What are people for?