'While Mortals Sleep': A posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut's big-hearted stories
Book review: The late author Kurt Vonnegut was a superb storyteller who was unafraid of including a moral in his stories, an attribute on eloquent display in his posthumous collection of short fiction, "While Mortals Sleep."
Special to The Seattle Times
'While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction'
by Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte, 253 pp., $27
Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, profoundly influenced thousands of writers. I am one of them.
In 1989 he responded to a letter I wrote him. He is the only author to whom I ever sent a fan letter. I was in my twenties, and my first novel had just been published. I can't remember exactly why I wrote, or what I wrote. I do not have a copy of my letter. I do have his response.
"The best thing about our family, our profession," he wrote, "is that its members are not envious or competitive." He closed his letter by saying, "For what it's worth: It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told."
Mr. Vonnegut was not afraid, in correspondence or fiction, to tell people how things ought to be, or how we ought to be. As Dave Eggers points out in the book's foreword, which is customarily smart and surprisingly unironic for Eggers, Mr. Vonnegut was a "voice who helped us know how to live."
In "Mother Night," one of his early novels, Mr. Vonnegut states, "This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.' "
Almost every one of these 16 stories has a moral, and despite Mr. Vonnegut's representation in "Mother Night," I'm confident he knew the moral of each. The morals are not subtle. The stories are not nuanced. In this they seem wonderfully old-fashioned.
"Please, darling, become an imperfect human being again among other imperfect human beings," a woman pleads at the end of the first story, "Jenny," spelling out the lesson of the tale.
This could sound annoying to the modern ear, but instead I found it reassuring, like the voice of a natural leader in troubled times.
"Life is what you make it," a character tells us, "and ingratitude is one of the worst sins."
Yes, we know these things, but it is good to be reminded of the fundamentals, especially when the man reminding us is clever, good-humored and big-hearted.
Mr. Vonnegut points out the folly of jealousy, the shortcomings of materialism, the true meaning of Christmas and, of course, the necessity and glory of human connection. He urges us to understand each other.
These stories have morals, they have twists at the end and they have sentences all fans will appreciate as classic Kurt Vonnegut. "His whole life was the paper," Mr. Vonnegut observes about a journalist, "and his talking of quitting it was like a trout's talking of quitting a mountain stream to get a job in a five-and-ten."
Mr. Vonnegut signed his letter to me, "Fraternally, Brother Vonnegut." He saw writers as kin, but he also saw the human race as kin. These stories were all good when they were written decades ago, but many strike me as great now. Never has the voice of Kurt Vonnegut, humanist and humorist, been more relevant.
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