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Arts in Review

Book Review: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

In While Mortals Sleep, Kurt Vonnegut’s altruism is resonant, but lacking the punchy style that we have come to love the famous novelist for. While Mortals Sleep is a posthumous collection of short stories – most of them early works. Unlike Vonnegut’s novels, which revolve around rich, eccentric alcoholic millionaires, and apocalyptic scenarios (as well as time travel) and American-born Nazi double agents, the stories focus on the common man – regular people in regular situations that could happen to any of us.

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By Alexei C. Summers (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 16, 2011

In While Mortals Sleep, Kurt Vonnegut’s altruism is resonant, but lacking the punchy style that we have come to love the famous novelist for. While Mortals Sleep is a posthumous collection of short stories – most of them early works. Unlike Vonnegut’s novels, which revolve around rich, eccentric alcoholic millionaires, and apocalyptic scenarios (as well as time travel) and American-born Nazi double agents, the stories focus on the common man – regular people in regular situations that could happen to any of us. The stories, while they might lack the typical passive voice which readers associate with Vonnegut, do still have some of his outrageously hilarious plots. For example, the first story in the book, entitled “Jenny,” is the witty tale of a man who falls in love with a refrigerator. There is no lack of wit, and there is certainly no lack of those clever drawings and illustrations which have come to be related with Mr. Vonnegut. The contents of the book are riddled with the charming All-American attitudes of the cynical Vonnegut.

The stories are simple. The prose is rigid, and observational, with most adjectives removed. The sentences state simple truths about humanity, and point out injustices and inhumanity. Vonnegut, as with all his stories, offers no direct explanations of how to remedy our errors, but does drop veiled hints of as to how humanity can better itself. The writing style is interesting, and yet does not read the same as Vonnegut’s other works. The voice is not yet developed, and the style is not so dark and pessimistically passive, yet. Many of these stories may very well have been penned before Vonnegut left to fight in the European theatre of World War II.

As with most Vonnegut books I own, it took me a while to actually pick the book up off the shelf. I procrastinated reading it for weeks after purchasing it. I had concluded that I’d read everything good by the legendary author after having finished Slaughterhouse Five. Thankfully, I was wrong, and I found that once I’d picked up the collection of previously unpublished stories, I could not put it down. In fact, very seldom do I spend entire days reading anything, but I spent an entire day simply reading this collection of short stories.

While Mortals Sleep is the third collection of Vonnegut’s writings since his death in 2007 – the first being Armageddon in Retrospect, and the second being Look at the Birdie. Often credited as being America’s greatest satirist, and twentieth century America’s greatest dark humourist, Kurt Vonnegut left behind him a world of words. Words designed to heal, and not harm. A trail of literary breadcrumbs in the woods, designed to allow us to find ourselves, as well as the answers to all those little tricky questions.

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