As much as I love Kurt Vonnegut and cherish his world-weary yet humane wit, he isn’t above the general predicament of unpublished story collections: on the whole, they tend to not be as good. The feeling is all the worse when the collections are posthumous, for they leave a disappointed taste in the mouth that can only be washed away by re-reading the classics. This book may best read alongside its companion volume of previously published short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. But as-is, it’s a heartwarming tribute to pure vintage Vonnegut, a must-read for fans longing for his spry commentary at the close of a decade even more in need of his words.
The stories in this collection are fables for adults. They tend toward simple morals and straightforward storytelling, condensing Vonnegut’s dry, brisk style into neat little packages. And, for what they are, they succeed. In “Confido,” an eager inventor creates an earpiece that your hidden thoughts can confide in, but his wife discovers that the words of encouragement it provides are vile barbs from the depths of cruel human pettiness. It is at once a traditionally wary story about the dangers of scientific knowledge and a lampoon on the crushing banality of suburban housewifery that inspires such bitterness. Dated? Perhaps. But his tone is still perfect, his jokes just as funny, his sentiments heartfelt but completely unsentimental.
At the end of The Plague, Camus claims that “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Such would seem to be Vonnegut’s mantra, epitomized in my favorite story in the collection, “FUBAR,” an optimistic (though it wouldn’t admit it) little nugget of the human spirit, about a cherubic young secretary showing a “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition” employee of a corporate monolith that there’s still something to live for. You’d be hard-pressed to find characters more one-dimensional, but the story works, and it’s hard to finish it without a smile.
“The Nice Little People” and “The Petrified Ants” would have made great material for The Twilight Zone. The latter concerns a pair of Soviet scientists who unearth a colony of fossilized ants from a variety of time periods. The fossil record shows the colony’s development from a colony of capitalist individualists’ descent into the propaganda-worshipping mindlessness and violence of a communist regime. The piece is bold and unforgiving, a powerful (albeit simplistic) indictment of the thoughtlessness of totalitarian life.
There’s nothing revolutionary in Look at the Birdie, but all the stories are a pleasure to read, and Vonnegut fans will appreciate their elegance. And, if you find the book leaves a disappointed taste in your mouth, just go right back to your tattered copy of Cat’s Cradle. It’ll be a good tribute all the same.