OR: Bagombo Snuff Box

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #24:-


Kurt Vonnegut

Jonathan Cape hb, 295pp, £16.99

Back in the 1950s, when reading magazines was for millions of people a vital leisure activity and not simply something to do when the TV broke down or a way to kill time in somebody’s waiting room, and when the magazines ran fiction rather than celebrity gossip and lifestyle tips, before most of us even knew that we had a lifestyle, a young Kurt Vonnegut was earning his daily bread by selling stories to these voracious markets at $1500 a time. The best of Vonnegut’s work from this period was packaged in 1968’s Welcome to the Monkey House and now, more than thirty years later, this volume brings together the remaining uncollected short fiction, complete with introduction and afterword by the author.

Given Vonnegut’s stature it seems reasonable to wonder why it took so long for this collection to make it into print, and to prepare for the worst. Vonnegut himself admits that he was learning his craft at the time, and that standards were low in many of the markets he was submitting to, so whatever else you may think of the book nobody can accuse him of trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes.

There are twenty-three stories here, although it says twenty-four on the cover. A couple are Science Fiction and have dated badly. The remainder are what should probably be termed human interest pieces. Most depend on surprise endings, bringing to mind writers like Dahl and Saki, but without their economy of effect and black humour. There are some good character sketches and the compassion for human failings that’s become Vonnegut’s hallmark is evident, but tied in to structures that make it appear gushy or unduly sentimental. It’s all pleasant enough in a Happy Days nostalgia kind of way, but the overall effect is underwhelming and most of the stories forgettable. We’re left with a book that seems pointless except for its worth as a historical document, and one which will be of compelling interest only to Vonnegut completists.

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