Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Grading Debut Novels on a Curve

image via Goodreads.com

Debut novels are interesting. I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I’m planning to read all of his novels and then get a tattoo of the asshole he drew in Breakfast of Champions (that is not a joke, and please don’t tell my mom). Player Piano is an instructive look into the early thoughts of one of my favorite authors, but it’s definitely one of his weaker books.

Vonnegut’s short stories have been justly criticized. Most of them are phoned-in moneymakers, sad relics of the (woefully?) bygone era when short stories were still literary commodities of financial importance. Player Piano does not suffer from that particular failing, at least. It’s just really damn preachy. The novel describes a sad utopia where machines have made all but the very brightest human engineers obsolete, regulated to busy-work and menial, unfulfilled drudgery. Vonnegut makes that unfortunate mistake of many young novelists, that of both writing a book around a narrow philosophical treatise (humans are dehumanized without meaningful work) and then spitting that thesis out of his/her characters’ mouths. He’s not stooping to Ayn Rand levels here, but there’s a lot of it, and it’s pretty painful.

This major flaw certainly weakens the book quite a bit, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it spoils the thing completely. It’s still damn funny, and the earnestness that manifests itself badly in the form of a harping philosophical soapbox in narrative dress finds a much happier outlet in both touching moments of human unease and in the kind of black comedy that drew me to Vonnegut as a younger reader. It’s a strong, albeit deeply flawed, first effort, and it points at all the interesting places Vonnegut went as he strengthened his craft and sense of subtlety.

Recommendation: Read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle instead, unless you’re dead set on really getting into Vonnegut’s back catalog.

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