This week I finished rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a good story that includes commentary on the human condition. It’s amazing how far-sighted it was.
I still have the paperback copy I bought in 1970 from a wire rack in the tiny bookshop on the U.S. Army base in Vicenza, Italy, where I stationed in 1970 and 1971. A dour, thin, middle-aged Italian man ran the shop; I never saw him smile except when he conversed with one of the other Italians who worked at the base. I always got the impression that he despised us Americans and grudgingly worked there because it was better money than he could have earned off base. But perhaps he was uncomfortable since his English was merely passable. Vonnegut, had he seen this guy, probably would have worked a short story around him. My copy cost 95 cents, and the cover art is a yellowed piano keyboard with a man’s outstretched hands on the keys, his arms and body black and punctuated by white slots, like a reversal of a player-piano roll. His face is on a roller used to wind the piano music paper. That cover art was not reproduced on any subsequent reprinting.
The novel was published in 1952, when Vonnegut was 30. Reading it led me to gobble up everything Vonnegut had written till then, and at one point I considered myself an “authority” on his works. My humble estimation is that Player Piano was his best. I’m starting to conclude that writers, while they get better technically with age, write best when they’re hungriest. And, in looking through a recently published bio of Vonnegut, I learned that he and his wife were pretty hungry in the early 1950s. He’d quit a good-paying PR job with General Electric to write full-time. The encroaching automation that put people out of work, which he saw at GE, was part of his impetus for writing the novel.
Everyone in this futuristic society has a job, though it’s only the engineers and managers, all of whom hold Ph.D.s, that really have anything to do, any incentive to improve things, and who make big money. As a government official explains to a visiting sheik, “And any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government, either in the Army or the Reclammation and Reconstruction Corps.” (They fix potholes, 15 guys or so to a pothole.) Everyone except the engineers and managers is expected to be eternally thankful to them for improving their lives. Every house has the most up-to-date gadgets that give its occupants time to just enjoy life. But the sheik asks why people need to have that much time.
One part of the novel that caught my novelist’s eye was a passage in which a woman allows herself to get “picked up” by the visiting sheik, supposedly for sex in return for money, which the woman needs since her husband is out of work. He lost his job and his writer’s classification — W-440, fiction journeyman — because he wrote an unpublishable novel. Rather than extoll the “beauty” of the totally automated society, he wrote a novel about how dehumanizing it was. When she’s asked by the government official accompanying the sheik why he wrote something with an “antimachine theme,” she responds: “He didn’t care. He had to write it, so he wrote it.”
Vonnegut, in that and some of his early books (he lost it after Slaughterhouse Five), did what all good novelists are supposed to do: get both mad as hell about the injustices of this life and write about them both in hopes of changing things, as hopeless as that might seem, and to uphold the dignity of humanity.
I think Vonnegut finally gave up on seeing goodness prevail and wrote toward the end with savage sarcasm. But in Player Piano he still believed that people could offset the threats to their humanity. He writes of the brilliance of the human mind but also with compassion about the shortcomings and failures that go with just being human. I hope I always will. If you’re a writer, I hope you always will, too.
Player Piano is probably available in your local library or at a bookstore near you. Or you can consult