Gregory Sumner – Building the Monkey House

In April 2014 Dial Press published Welcome to the Monkey House -The Special Edition, a collection of short stories originally published in 1968.  For anyone unfamiliar with Kurt Vonnegut’s short fiction the book is a great place to start, as it features the best of his work from a period critical to Vonnegut’s development as a artist—his “craftsman” phase writing reliably pleasing short stories for popular family magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post.   But what makes this edition “special” is the original essay Building the Monkey House by Gregory D. Sumner, author of the recent Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels (Seven Stories Press, 2011). 

In this essay Sumner traces the development of the title story from its earliest drafts featuring a first-person narrator named Greta Garball.  Over time we see the published story’s eventual form and theme take shape.  It’s a fascinating view of Vonnegut at work, sure to be appreciated by Vonnegut aficionados and students of the writing craft.

Professor Sumner graciously responded to several questions about the essay.

You’re a professor of history.  How did you come to write a book, and now this essay, about Kurt Vonnegut?

Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am from Indianapolis—so I understand his Midwestern, grounded but outsider-absurdist view of life.  It is very different in point of view from someone who grew up on the coasts, in the “centers” of our culture.  As a historian I was drawn to the power of his biography and especially the influence of the Great Depression and WWII on his perspective.  Here is a man who witnessed a lot of failure—and lived through the apocalypse, for God’s sake!—and yet somehow managed to retain his humanity.  Kurt Vonnegut has a very attractive world-weariness, and yet the more I study his works the more convinced I become that he was a closeted optimist his entire life.  I love the directness and simplicity and craft of his art, and I view his novels over 50 years as a kind of “diary” of the 20th century.

Can you describe the genesis of this essay?   Where were the original drafts and how did you come to read them?  

I was asked by Random House to write a commentary on KV’s writing method by examining multiple drafts of the famous Monkey House short story.  (The idea originated with KV’s friend and executor, Donald Farber.)  All the drafts (many of them short fragments) were sent to me so I could walk the reader through the process.  The thing that struck me the most, as I say in my essay, is the sheer doggedness of his approach, the fact that what looks so simple and straightforward is actually the result of a lot of filled wastebaskets, a lot of sweat—and of course a lot of cigarettes.  Vonnegut was a steady, persistent “basher” in his writing, rather than a free moving swooper, and a big key to his success (beside his talent) was his ethic of showing up at the work station, pecking away, day after day after day, until something worth sharing emerges on the page.

The first draft we see is titled “Easy Go.”  It begins with the first-person narrator, Greta Garball, recounting his dismal experiences with women.  It’s funny stuff, a routine worthy of a stand-up comic.  I would have loved to see more of this.  Why do you think Vonnegut abandoned this tone and broad comic approach? 

I am not sure why Vonnegut abandoned the Greta Garball story—truth told, I much prefer the story of this cranky humanist to the colder and more contrived Monkey House tale with Billy and Nancy.

In the first version of “Easy Go” Garball writes that he hasn’t always been rich and happy.  “Everything I’ve got I’ve worked for,” he tells the reader.  This almost seems like Kurt Vonnegut is anticipating the success of Slaughterhouse-Five and reminding readers, and himself, of all the hard work that it took to get there.  What are your thoughts on this?   

I definitely think Garball is close to the author in his point of view.  Garball’s defensiveness about money is an expression of KV’s own mixed feelings about money and success.  He wants people to know how hard he worked.

A recurring theme in the different drafts is the eventual commodification and degradation of a creator’s original vision.  The Greta Garballs become as generic and charmless as a Howard Johnson.  “Frankly, I think they would make him sick,” the narrator says.  Did Vonnegut share these same feelings about the corporatization and commercialization of American life in the mid-to-late 1960’s?

I like your comment about the “corporatization and commercialization of American life” at the heart of the Garball story.  KV thought these were anti-human processes, and a lot of what I see in 2014 tells me he was right.

The connection between sex and death appears as a major theme in the earliest drafts that we see.  It’s not something that’s evident in any of his other short fiction.  Your thoughts on why it might have emerged at this point in his life.

I think KV was beginning to explore the can of worms that is sexuality and the often bitterly adversarial relations between men and women as he pondered them in midlife.  He was raised to be rather prudish and polite, but now he was broaching taboo subjects as the old rules of decorum collapsed in the late 1960’s.  (He takes this to the limit with the brilliantly, urgently “impolite” Breakfast of Champions a few years later.)  It is morally wrong, he would argue, to obfuscate, to sanitize and fudge the issues when the world is on fire.

In the draft titled “I Used to Work in Chicago” the narrator is a midget named Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Vonnegut is clearly having fun with this.  Is this the first instance in which “Kurt” appears within his fiction?

As I say in the essay, Vonnegut’s fun here with his dwarfish alter-ego is a characteristic bit of self-deprecation, as well as a move toward the more personal themes of the second half of his writing career.

Published in 1968, “Monkey House” is the “newest” story in the collection.  In a way it’s the last major piece of short fiction that Kurt Vonnegut writes.   (“The Big Space Fuck,” published in 1972, seems like a minor effort.)  While his old markets like Collier’s had disappeared, there were still plenty of magazines and journals that would have welcomed short fiction from Vonnegut.  Why do you think he stopped writing short fiction?

I think Vonnegut saw short stories as obsolete, market-wise, and not all that efficient as a means of expression.  He once said that he wrote the stories to allow him to write the novels, and I think that was his priority.  Also, in the early 1970’s he considered abandoning writing of this kind altogether, to focus on the theater—a much more sociable enterprise than all that time alone, fretting and hunched over the typewriter.

What are your thoughts about the published version of “Welcome to the Monkey House?”

As I say in the essay, I actually think the Monkey House story is one of KV’s lesser efforts—today it reads as too contrived, the characters too unlikeable—and this is not  what I, for one, look for in a Vonnegut story.  The whole rape sequence is too brutal for many readers, including myself, and is not ameliorated by the clownishness of Billy or the warrior qualities of Nancy.  Interesting, yes, but not reflective of Vonnegut’s best.

In “Unstuck in Time” you describe Vonnegut as a “broken-hearted American dreamer.”  It’s a great description.  Can you expand on why you think it’s apt?  Do you see that aspect of Vonnegut reflected in any of the drafts of “Monkey House?” 

“Broken-hearted American Dreamer” – that is one of my better formulations.  I think it captures the patriotism, the naively optimistic, even hopeful qualities that I find at the heart of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and that touch me.  He is the little boy who never unlearned the civics lessons he learned in grade school in the 1930’s, the lover of Lincoln and Twain and FDR and the Constitution—who runs smack into the dark realities of war, inequality and corruption that may be undoing the whole American experiment.  I find some of this in Greta Garball, a man with craft, standards, and a devotion, in his own crabby way, to the welfare of people.

Do you have other Vonnegut projects in the works? 

Nothing in the pipeline at the moment about Vonnegut, though, as you can see, I love talking about him to an interested audience.  I work from time to time with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in my old hometown, and am currently president of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, a body dedicated to promoting Vonnegut scholarship in the 21st century.  I am at work on a short book about my “new” hometown, Detroit, during the Second World War, for the History Press based in South Carolina.

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Welcome to the Monkey House –The Special Edition and Unstuck in Time can be purchased through the online gift shop for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library as well as through your local bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.