Player Piano: Emma Reacts

Post Series: Emma Reacts to Vonnegut Books

Player Piano is the first novel in Rachel’s Suggested Vonnegut Reading Order. However, I am reading it third because I snooped over her shoulder when she was making it, and she originally had God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater listed first. In short, I brought this on myself.

I can only react to the first 85 pages of Player Piano. That’s all I managed to read.

I know, I suck. But usually, I determine whether or not I’m finishing a book after its first 50 pages. Because I was reading it for the blog, Player Piano got almost twice that. I paused at around page 85 and realized I didn’t know what the book was about. Plus I’ve got a lot of other Vonnegut books, and books in general, left to read. So I stopped.

And I’m not sorry. Several of my colleagues enjoyed Player Piano, and I am happy for them. But I won’t lie and say I did. I’ll try to help you figure out if you would enjoy the book by explaining why I didn’t enjoy it in as kind a manner as I can manage. No Dorothy Parker for me. If her trash-talking ways emerge in this review, feel free to pluck her out of it and throw her across the room with great force. (If you haven’t read her, go do it. I adore her, and I think Kurt would have gotten a kick out of her Hate Songs.)

Here’s a summary of the parts of the novel I actually read:

Player Piano takes place in the fictional town of Ilium, New York, where Vonnegut sets many of his novels. It describes a possible future in which most menial jobs are done by machines and humans need a doctorate degree to get any kind of job. The book follows a successful engineer, Dr. Paul Proteus, as he tries to navigate life in this machinery-driven society.

That’s all I got, folks. Now, for the part I promised you was coming: why I stopped reading.

My main issue was that the writing in Player Piano didn’t engage me. It didn’t feel like Vonnegut, at least not the Vonnegut of Slaughterhouse-Five and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The writing in Player Piano wasn’t as quirky, wasn’t as sardonic. It was pretty exposition-heavy, too, which slowed down the already slow plot. The writing in this book is more similar to Welcome to the Monkey House than anything else I’ve read by Vonnegut. Which kind of makes sense; Player Piano came out in 1952, and a lot of the stories in Monkey House were originally published around that time. I guess we can just assume Vonnegut’s writing style changed dramatically in the seven years between Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan. 

The characters didn’t enthrall me, either. Paul Proteus is a bored rich guy, which means he’s about as boring as a character can be. Paul’s wife, Anita, exists mainly to nag him and make outraged noises at appropriate times, which means she’s barely a character at all. Paul’s friend, Finnerty, is slightly more interesting than either Paul or Anita, but at best he’s a prototype of Vonnegut’s later wacky, misunderstood-genius characters. Some minor characters, like Rudy Hertz and the guy with the obscenely thick eyeglasses (if he ever gets a name, I didn’t read far enough to find it out), show some promise. Unfortunately, they alone weren’t enough to hold my interest.

That isn’t to say I disliked every part of Player Piano. The premise is still relevant today, even if, as one of my colleagues says, Vonnegut ripped 90% of it off George Orwell. Occasionally, the book takes enough of a break from monotony to be truly hilarious. There’s a delicious (though, in hindsight, perhaps culturally insensitive) scene in the second chapter where an American and an interpreter try to explain the difference between paid labor and slavery to a visiting Shah. There is some good in this book, even if I wasn’t patient enough to find more of it. If you think Player Piano sounds interesting, or if you’re a rabid Vonnegut fan, or if you just think I’m insane, go ahead and read the entire book. The day I don’t have any other books I want to read, I might, too.

Emma’s Overall Reaction: No offense, but I just don’t have that kind of time.

If you’ve decided I have no taste and you want to buy the book anyway (a perfectly valid decision), here’s a link to our site.

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