January 27, 2005


Looking for Vonnegut: An elusive, out-of-print book prompts a 30-year search and a question: Was it worth it? (David L. Ulin, January 24th, 2005, Village Voice)

In 1974 I was a reading-obsessed seventh-grader just discovering adult lit. My favorite book was Breakfast of Champions, newly out in paperback: a surreal explosion of a novel, featuring jokes and silly drawings, and the strangest ending, in which Kurt Vonnegut entered the story and set his characters free. Breakfast of Champions hit like a revelation, as if I'd cracked a code. All of a sudden, I got it: the absurdity, the gently anti-authoritarian perspective, the idea that nothing was as important as free will. No sooner had I finished the book than I set out to acquire all of Vonnegut's writings, from the novels that were, by then, available in uniform paperback editions to his 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and his 1972 teleplay Between Time and Timbuktu. These latter titles, as it happens, would later qualify as arcana, but 1974 was the perfect time to look for them, since neither had been available long enough to be truly obscure.

Of all the volumes on the Vonnegut backlist, one consistently eluded me: Canary in a Cat House, the author's third book, a collection of stories that had appeared in 1961 as a paperback original and was long out of print. Of the book's 12 pieces, 11 had been reanthologized in Welcome to the Monkey House, so the only point in owning the earlier work was if you were a completist, which, I was discovering, I was. The more I thought about Canary in a Cat House, the more it bothered me that I couldn't find it; the more I couldn't find it, the more I looked. [...]

Then about a year ago, I did a Google search. (In retrospect, it seems odd I hadn't tried before.) There among the bibliographies and fan sites was a book dealer in Australia who claimed to have the paperback for sale. I sat, amazed, as my computer screen slowly filled with the cover: first the title, followed by a burst of copy ("Off the top of his head—the short, wild fantasies of one of America's most imaginative young writers, the author of Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan"), and finally a multicolored face composed of images from the stories, with a rocket for a nose and a caged canary making up the iris of one eye. I laughed at the characterization of Vonnegut as a young writer, since he was over 80, although when Canary in a Cat House came out, he'd been younger than I was now. Mostly, however, I remember a sensation like shock, as if I were in the presence of a legend, something that, despite my pursuit, I had never quite believed. Quickly, I sent an e-mail to the dealer. Two weeks and $75 later, Canary in a Cat House arrived.

But here's the thing: Now that I have Canary in a Cat House, I'm dissatisfied. Once in a while, I take the book out and peruse it, yet this feels more like handling an artifact than any kind of reading I know. Partly that's because my edition is old, cheaply bound, and printed on acidic paper, which means that any time I touch it, I add to its decay. Partly it's because I've already read these stories, which means Canary in a Cat House can never exist for me as a text to discover on its own. Partly it's because ownership itself is anticlimactic, which means that after three decades, Canary in a Cat House has become less important for what it is than what it was: a vehicle for longing. Most of all, it's because of how I came across the collection not by discovering it in some forgotten bookstore, but through the clinical precision of the Internet. There was nothing tactile or serendipitous about it; I just visited a website, and there it was. Thirty years ago, all I had was my own wanting, the sense that if I hung in long enough, I might have a small epiphany. On the Internet, though, epiphanies become prosaic, since nearly anything is within electronic reach. What does it mean that, in the end, I got Canary in a Cat House with so little effort, without having to leave my home? Maybe that in gaining a thing, we may lose it also, in regard to the open-ended possibilities of desire.

How can it take someone thirty years to realize that the next Vonnegut is always disappointing, because, like Robert Ludlum, he just rewrote the same book over and over? [Though he did write one good short story many years ago.]

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 27, 2005 7:11 AM

I never could understand how someone who could write Harrison Bergeron be such a leftie. It was much easier though to understand how an ethnic German whose aunt married a Nazi could praise non-entities like Celine and write about how horrible and wrong the more than deserved firebombing of Dresden was.

Posted by: Bart at January 27, 2005 2:21 PM

How can it take someone thirty years to realize that the next Vonnegut is always disappointing

Actually, if you read him carefully, he doesn't seem to understand that even now. He's disappointed because the book was so easy to acquire, not because Vonnegut is a one-note wonder.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at January 27, 2005 9:35 PM

Vonegut is and was a very lightweight writer in an era of lightwieght writers. In high school (which is about the level of most of his stuff) I read quite a bit of his ouvre. Cat's Cradle was IIRC, pretty good, but as OJ says if you have read it, you don't have to read anything else he wrote.

The line that stuck with me when my daughters were competitive swimmers was: "What kind of man turns hsi daughter into an outboard motor."

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 27, 2005 11:37 PM