Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, by Kurt Vonnegut

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These stories by Kurt Vonnegut were produced in his early days as a writer, as he was learning his craft.  Though, as you would expect from tyro work, the quality is variable, generally they demonstrate a deftness of characterisation and tight narrative structure.  Written during the 1950s and early ‘60s, mostly for wide-circulation magazines, they were not included in the earlier collection Welcome to the Monkey House, but have lain neglected in the publications’ files since their first appearance.

The compiler, Peter Reed, has contributed an informative preface setting the stories in the context of Vonnegut’s early career, drawing out themes and relating them to his novels and experiences.  Vonnegut in turn provides an introduction and coda, with thoughts on his development as a writer, including some useful tips on creative writing and a paean to his native Mid Western United States.

He extols the virtues of the short story compared to other types of story-telling, claiming that it has physiological effects akin to Buddhist meditation.  Well, perhaps, though I doubt if meditation produces as many smiles as some of these efforts.  Vonnegut is modest about their quality, conceding that if his early novels had not been well received, later on, it is unlikely that these stories would have been reprinted.  Indeed, and dispelling any notion of false modesty, he considered them disposable to the extent of not even keeping flimsies.

It’s a shame he felt that way because there’s enough variety to allow one to read straight through without feeling jaded.  Vonnegut balances compassion, satire, social comment, humour and dislike of pretension.  He particularly displays a disdain for faceless corporatism, of the sort he was escaping by becoming a writer.  He mostly achieves a weightless feel that is hard to date, apart from details such as the unlikely space mission in ‘Thanasphere’ (shouldn’t that be Thanatosphere?), the Korean War in ‘The Cruise of the Jolly Roger’ and the particular female movie stars in ‘Mnemonics‘ (and gender attitudes generally).  Unfortunately that very weightlessness means that nothing here will live long in the memory, but they deserve a longer life than was afforded by appearing in the likes of Collier‘s Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post and the Cape Cod Compass.

Vonnegut notes that several stories have been tidied for this collection, fixing problems that should have been spotted at the time. That may aid readability, but on balance I think I would have preferred them as first written, not revised by the hand of an experienced author.  They will have lost some of the authenticity of the period in the process, and there is no way of knowing how much, short of digging out the originals.  Eventually I suppose the periodicals will find their way online and we can compare, if we are so inclined.  In the meantime, reading these is an enjoyable way of watching a developing writer flex his considerable literary muscles.

Sadly, as Vonnegut points out, it is not possible to make money now from writing such stories as a beginner, but he optimistically argues that “practicing an art isn’t a way to earn money.  It’s a way to make one’s soul grow.”  Spoken like a man who has made his pile already.

First published on Goodreads website 25 November 2012

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