I have a confession: Kurt Vonnegut has been a dead key to me ever since I started to read both for pleasure and spiritual succor. I’d pick up a Vonnegut novel or story, start to read armed with the conviction that I was about to find something I had been missing. Then I would get distracted. I wrote him off as a breezy smart aleck.
You do know, don’t you, that I am often wrong, and that I rarely even realize the extent of my error?
I am not sure what possessed me to pick Player Piano, his first novel. Perhaps it was because Vonnegut was recently honored with a volume all his own in the Library of America series. I collect these sturdy volumes, and harbor the illusion that before I am dead, I will have read through the American canon. I waded into Player Piano devoid of great expectations. But soon enough I was hooked. I can’t shake the book now. It lingers much like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Player Piano is a great piece of dystopian literature.
Published in the early 1950s, the novel reflects a world in which efficiency is the measure of all things. Engineers, managers and bureaucrats have discovered the joy of mechanization, economies of scale and mass production. If we would all just yield to the rhythmic seduction of the assembly line, we could produce more goods, more reliably and less expensively. A world of consumer goods mass produced at low cost yields a happier world, correct?
Needless to say, Vonnegut thinks not. His protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, is the son of one of the republic of efficiency’s founders. He has a perfect marriage. A perfect job. Bright prospects. Except for a certain gnawing for significance and a lingering sense that getting more for less is not the summum bonum of life. Dr. Proteus’ ambiguous struggle is the book’s story. Is he a rebel, or is he really just another cog in the social organism, a small part playing a predestined role?
Vonnegut writes without the philosopher’s pretense to state it just right in terms large enough to explain it all. Player Piano could be rewritten as a meditation on the illusion of free will. But doing so would destroy the book’s power to force you to rethink the implications of small things. Good literature forces a reassessment of the ordinary by isolating a small assumption and magnifying the consequences of taking it seriously. Do you think society can be managed for the benefit and welfare of all? Then try Player Piano on for size and ask whether you’d want to live in such a world.
Oddly enough, I was reminded of the book, its lessons were driven home with the power of a stave to the chest, while reading the latest story about interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. The headline of the Al Jazeera story reported a shocking new torture technique recently disclosed to reporters. I read with interest, expecting to see some new version of waterboarding, or some misapplication of electricity. Instead I read that prisoners were forced, via headphones, to listen to the music from Sesame Street for hours on end.
It struck me as funny, at first. And then the looney sound of the theme song took root. “Sunny Day/Sweeping the clouds away/On my way to where the air is sweet/Can you tell me how to get/ How to get to Sesame Street?”
I could not get the melody out of my head when our children were young. Its silly rhythm became a metronome. I would run to its beat; I would hum its bars while driving; it became a part of me present still and reawakened fully merely by reading a news account about its use. The ordinary became an oppressive tool, occupying my mind, setting a beat to which I was almost compelled to move. How like the world of Dr. Proteus and the ubiquitous desire to thoughts and movements with just the right means of social control.
I get Vonnegut now. There’s more to life than efficiency, getting along and getting things right. Sometimes the simple imperative to be heard is all there is. Integrity matters. The crowd, the group, the herd is always a threat. Listen for the sound of a voice in the wilderness. Hear it. Heed it. And then, please, go out and kill Big Bird. Please. He’s now a jailer’s assistant at Guantanamo Bay. Some sunny day.
Norm Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney in Bethany. Most days he blogs at www.pattisblog.com.