Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts in which I will be reading and reacting to all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels in their order of publication. I have never read some of these books, and those I have read in the past I will be re-reading specifically for these essays. I hope that some of the blog readers out there will feel inspired to post comments to these articles so we can really get a discussion going. Feel free to disagree with my interpretations, point out things I missed, correct me when I’m wrong, and so forth. So, let’s get started with Player Piano, shall we?
Just the Facts
Player Piano was published in 1952 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. It was Vonnegut’s first published novel. Interestingly, it was re-released a couple of years later by Bantam Books in an attempt to capitalize on the science fiction boom of the mid-1950s complete with a new title (Utopia 14) and a more stereotypical pulp-inspired book jacket. The novel has not been adapted into any other media, aside from an audio version.
In a futuristic United States, engineers have developed a method of recording the movements of skilled laborers and reproducing those movements on machines in the same way that a player piano can crank out a recorded tune without the help of a musician. Because this mechanized labor is highly efficient and cost-effective, the U.S. has become the world’s top producer of goods, bringing about a kind of utopia where every citizen is given a government-issued income, washing machine, TV, and other electronic goodies – as long as he or she agrees to do mindless maintenance tasks as part of the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps or joins the army, that is.
Into this world steps our protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, one of the top engineers at the Ilium Works in the fictitious town of Ilium, New York. (Incidentally, Ilium will figure into many of Vonnegut’s novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle.) Thanks to Paul’s intelligence and understanding of machinery – not to mention the fact that his deceased father, Dr. George Proteus, had been one of the founders of this new, mechanized society – he appears to have a bright future ahead of him. He is already a favorite of his boss, Dr. Kroner, and he is a part of Ilium’s segregated upper class of managers and engineers with a trophy wife named Anita, excellent pay, a nice house, a new car, and so on. In fact, Dr. Kroner has all but promised him a promotion to manager of the Pittsburgh Works, one of the most important jobs in the National Manufacturing Council. Yes, Paul’s path to glory seems to have been laid out for him in advance by his genetic and cultural heritage and by the upper management at his job.
And yet, Paul is not satisfied. It would be a boring novel if he was! The source of his discord is the nagging suspicion that humans were made for more than just being categorized by machines, assigned jobs by machines, paid by machines, and using their intelligence to improve machines (thereby putting even more humans out of work). While traveling to the lower-class area called Homestead to buy Irish whisky, Paul notices that the people who live there are restless and disenfranchised because their rightful purpose in life has been usurped by machines, further validating his own sense of dissatisfaction. Paul’s best friend, Ed Finnerty (described as “one of the few persons he had ever felt close to”), then arrives at Paul and Anita’s house, unwashed and uncaring, and confides to Paul that he has decided to quit his high-profile job in Washington D.C. without any specific plans as to what he’ll do next. He, like Paul, feels that the existing system has sapped away all that is best in humanity including its ability to move forward and strive to do better despite (or perhaps because of) its mistakes.
Before Paul can fully decide where his sympathies lie, Finnerty goes rogue, refusing to register with the government for unemployment and disappearing into Homestead with the Ghost Shirt Society, a group of lower-class malcontents in search of a new messiah to rally behind and overthrow the established regime. Eventually, Paul, too, becomes an associate of the Ghost Shirt Society, although his employers at the Ilium Works believe he is simply an undercover agent/informer for them. For a time, Paul seems to be playing both sides. When he is finally forced to choose between the rebels and the company, though, he throws his lot in with the rebels, becoming their nominal leader and figurehead.
At the end of the novel, the Ghost Shirt Society-led revolution does manage to overthrow the Ilium Works (as well as the Salt Lake City Works and the Oakland Works), the irate laborers destroying as many of the machines as they can in one spectacular night of violence. The next morning, however, much to the surprise of Paul, the people of Ilium set out to repair the machines. Having overthrown the “perfect” society, the workers can start struggling toward perfection once again, using their skills and intelligence to make things better and gaining pride in the struggle to reach their goal.
The chief theme of Player Piano seems, to me, to be how humans need to fight to survive or else they fall into a complacency-fueled state of despair. Perhaps the futuristic world created by the engineers and the machines in the novel was too perfect, so perfect that it had deprived the vast majority of mankind of the struggle to survive, grow, and change, out of which comes the sense of dignity and accomplishment that humans need to be happy. It’s the journey to attain a perfect world that makes us feel fulfilled, Vonnegut seems to be saying, not actually reaching the trouble-free destination. Innovation comes from imperfection. Or, as Paul says, “The most beautiful peonies I ever saw were grown in almost pure cat excrement.”
The main thing that leapt out at me during my reading of Player Piano was simply Paul’s central dilemma of whether to continue along an easy, well-paying path that is not really fulfilling or to abandon that easy path for something riskier for which he has a real passion. That conundrum resonates for me right now because of my own situation; I have recently made the decision to leave Corporate America behind me to pursue being a writer. Like Paul, I don’t know where this decision will take me (and I’m sure that many of my friends think I’m crazy), but I am determined to see it through. At some points in the novel, I felt like Vonnegut was speaking directly to me. Silly, I know, but it’s hard not to pretend that the author is speaking to you when you’re sleepwalking through your last days in Corporate America and you read lines like “At the beginning and close of each item of business he thought, ‘To hell with you.’” Paul’s fate at the end of Player Piano is left rather ambiguous, but I choose to believe that he was content with his choice no matter what happened. As I hope I’ll be.
The sense of humor throughout Player Piano was great, of course, although the levity is not as strong as in many of Vonnegut’s later works. You can tell that his authorial voice was still developing at this stage of his career, which is understandable. Nevertheless, Vonnegut’s gift for addressing weighty issues while keeping you smiling is already apparent in Player Piano. The Meadows retreat, for one, was hilarious. I’ve been to enough corporate team building events to see that not a lot has changed with these things since 1952. The choice of the name “EPICAC” for the supercomputer that runs the U.S (and fills Carlsbad Caverns) is an inspired one as well, given that syrup of ipecac is a well-known substance to induce vomiting. (As an aside, EPICAC also shows up in the earlier Vonnegut short story “EPICAC,” which is included in Welcome to the Monkey House.) The quality of the writing was excellent as well. There is one image near the end of the book of Paul being carried out of the courthouse by his followers with the wires from the lie detector machine dangling from his arms like cut marionette strings that will stay with me for life. It just seemed like such an elegant and concrete illustration of the theme of the novel as well as a way to show that Paul had finally embraced his destiny by taking a stand and making a choice.
One aspect of the novel that bears mentioning is its treatment of women and African Americans. Anita, Paul’s wife, comes across like a minor-league Lady Macbeth trying to manipulate her husband into climbing the corporate ladder so she can bask in reflected glory. Paul’s secretary – who has a doctorate, mind you – is also forced to be subservient to men, catering to Paul’s every whim and only daring to rebel when her beau’s job is terminated. There are no women of power in the book. Even the members of the Ghost Shirt Society (the “good guys”) say that they want to return men to men’s work and women to women’s work. As for African Americans, the only representative that I could find was Harold, a man Paul meets in jail, which says something right there. Harold speaks in pidgin English and doesn’t seem particularly bright. Now, I’m not saying that these representations of women and African Americans reflect Vonnegut’s own views. Perhaps he was purposefully writing those characters as caricatures to point out to people in the 1950s how ridiculous their views on gender and race really were. Or maybe the characters are a simply a product of the times. We are all shaped by our environment, after all, and Vonnegut was no exception.
Interspersed throughout Player Piano are several chapters (Chapters 2, 7, 11, 17, 20, 24, and 28) that take the reader on a tour of the futuristic U.S. alongside the Shah of Bratpuhr, a visiting dignitary. Although I appreciate that these chapters give Vonnegut the opportunity to flesh out his world a bit and include some more humor, I didn’t particularly care for them. They ultimately added very little to the overall narrative, and I found my eyes glazing over a couple of times as I read through them (specifically while reading Chapter 7 about Private First Class Elmo C. Hackett, Jr., Chapter 17 about Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm, and Chapter 28 about Dr. Harold Roseberry). At the end of the novel, I kept waiting for the Shah chapters to play some significant role in the climax of the novel as a whole (I hypothesized that the Shah’s limo would end up hitting one of Paul’s chief adversaries during the chaos of the Ilium riots at the end, thereby saving Paul). I was left waiting. Given the lack of connection to the rest of the work, I felt like these chapters might have been added to help turn what could have been a novella into a full-length novel.
Another issue for me in the book was the character of Paul himself. I found him rather hard to get behind as a protagonist because he is, throughout the vast majority of the novel, no more than a player piano himself. At the start of the narrative, the people at the Ilium Works assume that he is going to be the reincarnation of his father, in which case he would just be a machine of a human copying the movements of a ghost. Paul doesn’t like that idea, so he explores the idea of rebelling against the society his father helped create. But all he does is explore these ideas, never really committing to one side or the other until events force him to do so. And even after Paul finally commits to the Ghost Shirt Society at the very end of Chapter 31 (of 35), he still remains a kind of machine. He becomes a figurehead with no real power and no real choice, signing a pre-written letter and repeating the words that his fellow conspirators have programmed him to say at his trial. Paul’s wishy-washy nature is even spelled out for us in his last name, Proteus. As all good Greek mythology nerds know, Proteus was a sea god who could change his shape at will. His name gives us the English word “protean,” which is defined as “readily taking on varied shapes, forms, or meanings” and “exhibiting considerable variety or diversity.” At least Finnerty made a choice and stuck to it, a more typical attitude for the hero of a story of revolution. But then again, perhaps that was the point that Vonnegut was trying to make by introducing us to the Ghost Shirt Society through the more charismatic Finnerty. At first, the reader and the lower-class folks are lead to believe that Finnerty will be their new messiah, but then we come to understand that he is more like John the Baptist (complete with the bad hygiene), preparing the way for Paul as the messiah. Perhaps Vonnegut casts the rather irresolute Paul as the savior of humanity as a commentary on such messiah figures. Did Jesus feel like Paul, swept away by events and forces beyond his control, pressed into the role of savior by his own followers and told what to say and do for the betterment of mankind? Perhaps all messiahs are nothing more than the sum of their followers’ beliefs, the epitome of player pianos giving voice to a song written and performed by others.
Next time: The Sirens of Titan