Looking for Vonnegut

An elusive, out-of-print book prompts a 30-year search and a question: Was it worth it?

But here's the thing: Now that I have Canary in a Cat House, I'm dissatisfied. Once in a while, I take the book out and peruse it, yet this feels more like handling an artifact than any kind of reading I know. Partly that's because my edition is old, cheaply bound, and printed on acidic paper, which means that any time I touch it, I add to its decay. Partly it's because I've already read these stories, which means Canary in a Cat House can never exist for me as a text to discover on its own. Partly it's because ownership itself is anticlimactic, which means that after three decades, Canary in a Cat House has become less important for what it is than what it was: a vehicle for longing. Most of all, it's because of how I came across the collection not by discovering it in some forgotten bookstore, but through the clinical precision of the Internet. There was nothing tactile or serendipitous about it; I just visited a website, and there it was. Thirty years ago, all I had was my own wanting, the sense that if I hung in long enough, I might have a small epiphany. On the Internet, though, epiphanies become prosaic, since nearly anything is within electronic reach. What does it mean that, in the end, I got Canary in a Cat House with so little effort, without having to leave my home? Maybe that in gaining a thing, we may lose it also, in regard to the open-ended possibilities of desire.

The irony is that these issues mark Canary in a Cat House, as they do all of Vonnegut's writing, which deals not so much with what progress offers as what it takes away. That's the message of Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, even Breakfast of Champions, and it emerges here in "Deer in the Works," with its clash between industry and nature, or "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," which imagines 12 billion people kept alive by drugs and seaweed, in a future bereft of everything but time. How, Vonnegut means to ask, do we come to terms with our advances when they often isolate us, keep us at a distance from the world? Where do we find room for humanity when we must interact increasingly with machines? Such questions are especially relevant in a society like this one, which has become, I think, the cathouse to which Vonnegut was referring, a culture of cheap thrills and instant gratification, where technology is a stand-in for the connections we desire. As for the canary . . . well, who else could it be but the author, although this has taken me 30 years to understand.

illustration: Shane Harrison

David L. Ulin is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking). He edited Another City: Writing From Los Angeles (City Lights) and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America).

« Previous Page
New York Concert Tickets