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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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Unpublished Short Fiction

A-While Mortals SleepAlthough Kurt Vonnegut, considered one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, passed away in 2007, his vast oeuvre continues to spawn new, previously unpublished works--Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), a collection of short stories and essays about war, and Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction (2009). While Mortals Sleep, Vonnegut's third posthumous publication, is a collection of 16 short stories written early in his career and originally intended for magazine publication.

The Story: In Vonnegut's world, ordinary people--secretaries, file clerks, salesmen, and newspaper reporters living in cities like Schenectady and Indianapolis--must come to grips with grief, loneliness, fear, stress, and frustration. In "Jenny," a traveling salesman falls madly in love with the product he's hawking--a talking refrigerator shaped like a woman. A successful businessman ignores his pretty young wife to play with an elaborate model train set in the basement in "With His Hand on the Throttle," and "Ruth" features a pregnant young widow meeting her mother-in-law for the first time. In the title story, a cynical city editor faces down Christmas. Together, these stories reflect the self-assured awakening of an exceptional writer.
Delacorte Press. 253 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780385343732

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"These stories were all good when they were written decades ago, but many strike me as great now. Never has the voice of Kurt Vonnegut, humanist and humorist, been more relevant." Mark Lindquist

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Every event is calculated, leading up to a revelation or pronouncement that doesn't hide behind metaphors or symbolism--something seen as banal or amateurish by today's standards. ... But reading these Vonnegut pieces is deeper, because he provides enough substance to reassure us that we are not in the hands of a hack." Noah Homola

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"They're very skillfully done, ‘mousetrap stories,' as Dave Eggers describes them in his foreword, tales to be taken at a single sitting, with a twist or moral pill that comes so quickly at the end the reader scarcely notices it slipping down. ... His particular vision of human life--it's vulnerable, it's precarious, it's pained, and fate is likely to slap us hard at any moment--is already falling into place, as is that wry tone, which mingles wit and resignation with an unashamed moral gaze." Richard Rayner

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"There's something distinctly timeless about Vonnegut's vision. As old-fashioned as some of his cultural touchstones might seem, there's no denying that his fiction bears eternal truths." Kevin Canfield

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It's good to have these stories, good to hear that inimitable voice once more. It's heartening to discover that Vonnegut's work, even at this early, relatively undeveloped stage, is still vital, still affecting, still capable of helping us through this thing. Whatever it is." William Sheehan

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"It is a curiosity, an album of B-sides, a snapshot from a time when a certain kind of story was prized by mainstream magazines. ... There's a time-capsule quality to the 30 stories in [Look at the Birdie and While Mortals Sleep], plenty of ‘By golly' and ‘Mercy me' dialogue, some bucking against 1950s conformity, and that peculiar brand of futurism that looks pretty silly in the rearview mirror (really, a talking refrigerator?)." Jess Walter

Critical Summary

While most reviewers considered these stories, written to meet the expectations of a bygone era, quaint and nostalgic if nonetheless still relevant to our times, a few found their emphasis on plot twists and explicit morals passé. All, however, agreed that Vonnegut's dry and unassuming tone, unadorned prose, and unique vision of life are evident even at this early stage in his career. For most, this was reason enough to pay tribute to and recommend this posthumous collection. Vonnegut's enduring themes lend these tales a timeless quality. "Predictive of Vonnegut's great future" (Los Angeles Times), While Mortals Sleep presents an American master polishing his already considerable skills, and Vonnegut's fans will be grateful to hear his distinct voice once again.