Saturday of Book Reviewing – Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June

This is a play! Which is both new and exciting coming from Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant, beautiful library. It was, however, also very strange. It was funny, as all his work is, but since it was dialogue driven I almost couldn’t tell he had written it. There’s still his distinct humanist positivity going on, but without his elaborate descriptions and carefully chosen details, I will say it fell a little short for me. This play was really a serious bout of ‘buts’ for me. It was entertaining, but I expected more. The characters were interesting, but they didn’t make me think the way his previous protagonists have. This wasn’t my favorite, but Kurt Vonnegut is still KING.

ON TO THE QUOTES!

Honestly, I think my favorite part of writing these ‘reviews’ is choosing poignant quotes and analyzing them. Does that make me weird? Maybe. Here goes:

HAROLD
They were enemies. We were at war.

LOOSELEAF
Yeah, Jesus – but wars would be a lot better, I think, if guys would say to themselves sometimes, “Jesus – I’m not going to do that to the enemy. That’s too much.” You could have been the manufacturer of that violin there, even though you don’t know how to make a violin, just by not busting it up. I could have been the father of all those people in Nagasaki, and the mother, too, just by not dropping the bomb.

[PAUSE]
I sent ’em to Heaven instead – and I don’t think there is one.
pg. 162

Potential. That’s what Looseleaf is championing here; protecting that which has potential, not just because of what is, but because of what will one day be. There is a wisdom in looking forward like this, trying to see passed the present. Vonnegut was always teaching us to be better people in every one of his works and this is no different.
On an interesting side note, Looseleaf claims he sent his victims to a Heaven he doesn’t believe in. How often do atheists, agnostics, as well as those who claim membership to a formal religion do things just because religion says to, merely to avoid going against the general zeitgeist? I fear I often go with the herd simply to avoid arguing, although never to the degree to which Looseleaf has committed.

HAROLD
There are great issues to be fought out here – or to be argued, at least. The enemy, the champion of all who oppose me, is in East St. Louis with his mother and his aunt. I have so far done battle with a woman and a child and a violin.

PENELOPE
The old heroes are going to have to get used to this, Harold – the new heroes who refuse to fight. They’re trying to save the planet. There’s no time for battle, no point to battle anymore.

HAROLD
I feel mocked, insulted, with no sort of satisfaction in prospect. We don’t have to fight with steel. I can fight with words. I’m not an inarticulate ape, you know, who grabs a rock for want of a vocabulary.
pg. 176

To use Penelope’s distinction, the vices and virtues of the old heroes versus the new are well laid out here and if nothing else, this play serves as a reminder that we must evolve or die. In some cases, die a painful death of realizing our own fate as being outdated and obsolete. Poor Harold, doomed to this slow, lingering demise.
It is strange that the virtues of the past – readiness to fight, physical bravery, physical aggression (if not all out violence), stubbornness – are the vices of the progressive present. It calls to mind Campbell’s The Power Of Myth, which I read, and reviewed, last year. As he said, “the moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life, in time, here and now.”
Penelope is so very right – There is no more time to battle; we have run out. All we have time left for is cooperation and mutual hard work in the face of threats like natural disasters and global warming.

WOODLEY
The same hairy, humorless old gods who move you from hither to yon. “Honor”, if you like.
pg. 180

The point here is clear: the old heroes were moved. The new heroes do the moving.
It’s so hard to blaze your own path; to deviate from the ease of taking simple directions. More than just in letting religion decide the rules you should follow, I think this holds true of every decision an adult makes in their lives. We yearn for the guidelines of childhood with parental structure, my generation, the generation of ’90s TV revivals and Pokémon and nostalgia. To be the new heroes, to be better than we are, we must release these old boundaries and carve our own new ones. I’ve written before on moving passed old labels and finding the truth beyond such limitations, but reading works like Vonnegut’s remind me not just how it may be accomplished, but why it is so important to do so.

OFF OF THE QUOTES

So yeah, in typically Vonnegut style there’s a lot of material here to make a reader go ‘hmmm’, but maybe less than I was initially anticipating. Still, it’s a fun, quick read I’d give three stars overall.

Final thoughts:
-I wish that the juxtaposition between the titular character’s location and that of the real main characters was played up a bit more.
– I’ve read this is a retelling of Odysseus’ chaotic return from war, but I don’t necessarily think that tidbit vital to the reading.
-The sliding scale of masculinity that Penelope’s suitors represent was interesting, but I could probably write a whole essay on that topic and didn’t want to get stuck on an analysis of something people would have had to read in order to enjoy my dwelling on it so.

Jessie Gutierrez

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