‘Happy Birthday, 1951’ by Kurt Vonnegut

It was Vonnegut that claimed that a story should behave in such a way that were you to lose the last page, you, the reader, still ought to be able to finish it to your satisfaction. A story on rails. So I guess he didn’t think much of twist endings either. Or at least, only the right kind of twist.

Like Asimov, Vonnegut’s writing is, at the surface level, the words, the sentences, almost simplistic. He tends to insert rather more of himself, his narration has its own character, its own idiosyncratic, knowing voice, with the occasional nod and a wink to the reader. Having recommended him in novel form for a book club, (‘Galapagos’, for the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club) I’m painfully aware that his fourth-wall breaking style is not to everyone’s taste, even as it varied across his long career, as he became both more reflective and perhaps more comfortable with breaking the rules, whatever they are.

‘Happy Birthday, 1951’ is a straight-told tale that works whether that titular date is 1951, or 1991, or 2021. It’s 1951 for Vonnegut, because the boy in the story is six and was left with an old man at the end of a war. Thewar. But add six to any armed conflict, now, or in the future, and it will work just as well. It’s bittersweet: “Tomorrow I’ll take you away from the war”, promises the old man. It contains a kernel of hope, but the hope doesn’t get the nourishment you’d expect, that you might get from another writer, one who hadn’t experienced the horrors of war and their aftermath. Vonnegut knows, and though there’s no violence in the story it still feels like a gut-punch, that you can’t get away from war. Not even when it is over. Whether you like it or not, the history you grow up in moulds you. Nostalgia for days gone by is a luxury of those the present leaves behind, and the generational gap can be as unfathomable as speaking a different language.

Published posthumously in Armageddon in Retrospect, 2008, Vintage, Random House

‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut

Is this story any good? Heck if I know. It was assigned reading in seventh grade and it’s been in my head ever since. Revisiting it for the first time in decades to write this I find it broad, a little weird—the hero is a good six years younger than makes sense—and startlingly prescient: the parents in the story watch a terrible personal tragedy unfold on TV but the father is unable to remember what has happened and why he is crying because a device implanted in his brain constantly interrupts his train of thought. (Do you need to check your phone? I’ll wait.) The premise of the story, that people with talent, strength or intelligence are punished in ways designed to bring them down to the lowest common denominator in the name of “equality,” strikes me as peculiarly Midwestern and a little Fountainheadish around the edges now, but when I first read it I was a loudmouth fourteen-year-old Jewish bookworm in Boise, Idaho who was regularly bullied for “using big words.” It’s not hard to see why it struck a chord.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1961. Collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, Delacorte, 1968

‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut

I think Vonnegut shaped my sensibility as a teenage reader more than anyone – yay, Kilgore Trout! – and while I don’t believe he wrote a lot of short fiction later in his career, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is an early masterpiece that has only grown more timely with time. If you took Vonnegut’s name off it and said it was written last week, no one would doubt it – at least thematically. His vision of a world where everyone must be equal would no doubt delight critics of so-called PC culture, though I can’t imagine the author himself had a lot of time for the politics of that particular crowd. I think the measure of the story’s value is how often images from it dance – clad in solid lead ballet slippers – through my brain, as the world that we live proves ever more Bergeron-ish.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct 1961, and collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, Delacourt, 1968 and the Collected Stories, Seven Stories Press, 2017