Having read Slaughterhouse Five last year, I had big expectations for Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, but I should have paid attention to how many times I nodded off while trying to complete this novel. What I also should have done was consider the importance of this being a first novel – that Vonnegut hadn’t found his voice yet and was still merely crafting words on paper. Player Piano is no work of art, which I find disappointing from a dystopian novel. Credit where credit is due though, Vonnegut has a succinct view of the future which is eerily our present – a human race superseded by machines.
Player Piano follows the life of Paul Proteus, an engineer who – along with the rest of society – must find a way to live in a world where the master race has become extremely reliant on automation. The protagonist goes on a journey from an unthinking leader that keeps society ticking over, to an outspoken critic and sympathiser of the common people. Through his betrayal of the system, he symbolises a revolution. He becomes the public figurehead for the rebel group of redundant men, “Ghost Shirt Society”, a strategic move forced upon him as the organisation looks to strengthen their following. Not only is the author’s comparison between the rebel group and militant Native Americans of the 19th Century nothing short of crude, forcing Proteus to the front line via the hands of others emphasises the protagonist’s lack of backbone.
Essentially a predictable plot interspersed with a failing marriage, questions of morality and competition between multiple alpha males, I was really disappointed with Player Piano. Class division is my all time favourite trope in literature, so I really thought I’d buy into Vonnegut’s depiction of engineers and managers vs lower classes left without jobs. Despite lengthy descriptions of inequality, and even a story within the story to bolster the discussion, the mundane landscape of America engulfs any frustrations that Vonnegut tries to make present in his lower class characters. While the suffering of the common men and their families isn’t palpable enough for my liking throughout the narrative, Vonnegut succeeds in making the callous distance between the two groups an excruciating experience for the reader.
Although I didn’t find much pleasure in Player Piano, I do have to admit it delivered a unique reading experience. By the time I finished the novel, I wish I could reread it, but from the perspective of Lasher, the leader of the Ghost Shirts. Tenacious, intuitive and if not forcefully impulsive, seeing society through his eyes certainly would have made for a far more interesting narrative:
I want to be sure you understand that men really do worry about what there is for their sons to live for; and some sons do hang themselves.