Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Everything was perfectly swell

the book: 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

published 1962


from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond




[The scene is a clinic, where a painter is working on a mural and chatting to a man who’s about to become a father.]


A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgement Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair – an unmistakable mustache, in fact.




observations: When you’re dealing with science fiction, let alone Vonnegut, you kind of know that if the first sentence is “Everything was perfectly swell,” happy times will not be ahead. In this dystopia, everything is “swell” because a cure for ageing has been found. So death by old age has been eradicated; but by law the population is stable - precisely stable. For every birth, someone has to die, voluntarily or not. And the guy’s wife is about to have triplets.

This is a marvellous story, and it’s not Vonnegut’s fault that I was sorely misled by its being advertised – in e-book form – as a novella. It’s a short story, and a really short one. Saki-length. But, like with the best of Saki, you feel like you’ve been through the wringer by the end of just a few pages.

The title looks like a Prince song title, years ahead of its time. But it’s actually a six-digit phone number, the letters signifying numbers on the dial, same as on a modern keypad. The zero is pronounced “naught”, so it sounds as “To be or not to be,” which is a rather dark joke explained in the story. When I was a child, not long after this was written, we knew a conundrum: “What does this say? YYUR, YYUB, ICUR YY4ME." So really, we were way ahead of Prince, never mind textspeak. (It says “Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me.”)

An overseas cap - originally a WWI term - is like the one Veronica Lake is wearing in the amazing main pic.

Jordin Sparks (the 2007 American Idol winner) is modelling a Louis Vuitton musette for us, in the second pic. The defining feature is not the style or shape of the bag, but the long shoulder strap. This is often worn over the opposite shoulder by, for example, military personnel who can’t risk their cheaper and less decorative bags falling off.

Apart from the coarseness and the facial hair, and the lack of a coat or a cap or any purple, and the smiling, and the happy children nearby, and the brolly and the wrong kind of bag altogether, I think the lady in the extract must have seemed just like model Jean Patchett, in this 1954 magazine photo:





Vonnegut has featured on the blog before, here.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

12 comments:

  1. Moira, thanks for this guest post by Colm Redmond. I've had this short story by Vonnegut on my tab for the past two years and it takes a review like this one to open it and read it.

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    1. Thanks and I hope you enjoy it, Prashant.

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  2. Moira - Thanks as every for hosting Colm.

    Colm - I've always thought Vonnegut's dystopian fiction was all the more chilling because you could actually conceive of it happening. Not immediately of course, and it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. But it's just close enough to possibility to be creepy. Oh, and I've always liked those word games. Must be the language person in me...

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    1. ICUR a sound judge of the scary, Margot. I agree, credible threats are always extra-scary.

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  3. The overseas cap is also known, in the US military at least, as piss-cutter. Why, I have no idea.

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    1. Ah yes, affectionately known as the piss-cutter. (Reminds me of that Argentine football manager John Motson always said was "affectionately known as Big Nose." I always wondered quite how affectionate it felt, to him.) I saw that name while fact-checking but didn't look into it - perhaps one or more of CiB's clothes-history expert friends will help us out...?

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    2. I checked. You don't want to know.

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    3. Since use of the name still hangs on in the Marine Corps, I would expect it to be pretty crude.

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  4. Colm, Tried to leave a comment earlier but had problems so gave up at the time. (On my end, I am sure.) I don't even remember what I said but in general, love the images, especially Veronica Lake. The exchange above is interesting. I like the code YYUR, YYUB, ICUR YY4ME, which I never would have figured out. I am hopeless with things like that.

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    1. Yes, such a great pic. But I love Jean Patchett's expression too, and the little boy's crazy smile.

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  5. Like the suit, adorable boys and Veronica Lake's photo.

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    1. I can't go near my computer without having another look at Veronica, Kathy.

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