“Player Piano” (Post 2/2)

Player Piano 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1


“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.”

“And this is as old as life itself,” said Paul.

“Well?” said Lasher.

“Well, it’s too bad. I’m certainly not overjoyed about it.”



The kitchen was, in a manner of speaking, what Anita had given of herself to the world. In planning it, she had experienced all the anguish and hellfire of creativity – tortured by doubts, cursing her limitations, at once hungry for and fearful of the opinions of others. Now it was done and admired, and the verdict of the community was: Anita was artistic.


This is clearly sarcasm. Paul (and Vonnegut) look down on Anita for caring and toiling over home design. But listen: Anita is doing this right. She understands exactly what reality she’s living in and how to find worth. She doesn’t sit around moping about how bored and empty and worthless her life is, she’s doing something and I applaud her even if Vonnegut wants to be snooty.


He knew with all his heart that the human situation was a frightful botch, but it was such a logical, intelligently arrived-at botch that he couldn’t see how history could possibly have led anywhere else.



Kroner had a habit of saying he already knew what he’d just been told.



“It’s far easier to ask questions than to answer them.”


[26] The lead males in suburban stories often try to elicit pity over their ice-queen, “bitch” wives and I always want to point out that these men made the decision who to marry. I won’t believe that every women turns into a monster post-marriage. These dudes knew what they were getting into and honestly, they’re often much worse than their wives.

When I was young, I sympathized with these males (they are so often the hero/protagonists) but I lost a lot of that once I was married. Spouses aren’t like parents and siblings – they’re not forced upon you (at least, they shouldn’t be); you’re not connected eternally. You choose your spouse, your spouse chooses you. If you’re miserable, part of it is your problem and you need to take steps for yourself.

He wasn’t going to tell Anita that he was quitting for a long time, not until she was ready. He would subtly re-educate her to a new set of values, and then quit. Otherwise the shock of being the wife of a nobody might do tragic things. The only grounds on which she met the world were those of her husband’s rank. If he were to lose the rank it was frighteningly possible that she would lose touch with the world altogether, or, worse for Paul, leave him.

And Paul didn’t want either of those things to happen. She was what fate had given him to love, and he did his best to love her. He knew her too well for her conceits to be offensive most of the time, to be anything but pathetic.

She was also more of a source of courage than he cared to admit.

She also had a sexual genius that gave Paul his one unqualified enthusiasm in life.

And Anita had also made possible, by her dogged attention to details, the luxury of his detached, variously amused or cynical outlook on life.

She was also all he had.


Then he needs to suck it up and stop being such an ass.

Later, this is given as the reason that divorce isn’t an option:

She’d have to leave New York State, of course, since the only grounds for divorce there were adultery, and incitement to conspire to advocate sabotage.


And note [29] gives the supposed reason the two were married in the first place.


“At last I’m finding myself.”

“What do you look like, Ed?”

“Those dumb bastards across the river – they’re my kind of people. They’re real, Paul, real!”

Paul had never doubted that they were real, and so found himself without any sort of comment or emotional response for Finnerty’s important announcement. “We’ll, I’m glad you’re finding yourself after all these years,” he said. Finnerty had been finding himself ever since Paul had known him. And, weeks later, he’d always deserted that self with angry cries of impostor, and discovered another.

(p.122 – 123)


“You shouldn’t let fear of jail keep you from doing what you believe in.”

“Well, it doesn’t.” Paul reflected that the big trouble, really, was finding something to believe in.


[29] Vocabulary:

“I must have had something these people don’t, or you wouldn’t have married me.”

Oligumenorrhea,” he said.

She blinked. “What’s that?”

“Oligomenorrhea – that’s what you had that these others don’t. Means delayed menstrual period.”



Oligomenorrhea (or oligomenorrheoea) is infrequent (or, in occasional usage, very light) menstruation. More strictly, it is menstrual periods occurring at intervals of greater than 35 days, with only four to nine periods in a year. The duration of such events may vary.

[30] This is the best explanation of “men need a war” that I’ve heard (for my rant on this theme, see The Magus, note [100]):

“These kids in the Army now, that’s just a place to keep ‘em off the streets and out of trouble, because there isn’t anything else to do with them. And the only chance they’ll ever get to be anybody is if there’s a war. That’s the only chance in the world they got of showing anybody they lived and died, and for something, by God.”


[31] The Meadows ceremonies (p.182-183) must be at least in part based on Bohemian Grove. If you don’t know what Bohemian Grove is, read Jon Ronson’s Them (read Jon Ronson’s Them even if you do. It’s fantastic).

A short summary:

Bohemian Grove is a 2,700 acre campground located in Monte Rio, California, belonging to a private San Francisco-based men’s art club known as the Bohemian Club. In mid-July each year, Bohemian Grove hosts an all-male two-week, three-weekend encampment of some of the most prominent men in the world. It was established in 1878.

Many of the rules and activities are similar to Vonnegut’s Meadows (no women or children during the two-week camp, sports, plays/ceremonies, teams with assigned “captains,” etc.). No matter how rationally it’s explained, it sounds batshit to me.

[32] Reference/Translate:

And what the hell, the liquor was free. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.



The Latin phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, nothing unless good”) indicates that it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead.


“Nobody’s so damn well educated that you can’t learn ninety per cent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten per cent is decoration.”



“Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”



Things were happening so quickly now that Paul could only seize upon a word and repeat it as a question in order to keep in the conversation.



It was an electrifying situation, an elemental situation.


[37] Vocabulary:

A superannuated first sergeant, zebra-like under symbols for patience, individual bloodlettings, and separations from home, was telling tales of the last war – of the Last War.



adjective – (of a position or employee) belonging to a superannuation plan.

obsolete through age or new technological or intellectual developments.

A superannuation is a regular payment made into a fund by an employee toward a future pension and the definition I’m familiar with. I don’t know how “obsolete” gets mixed up in this.

[38] Reference:

Horatio on the bridge had become a radio-guided rocket with an atomic warhead and a proximity fuse. Roland and Oliver had become a pair of jet-driven computers.



Publius Horatius Cocles was an officer in the army of the ancient Roman Republic who famously defended the Pons Sublicius from the invading army of Lars Porsena, king of Clusium in the late 6th century BC. The phrase “Horatius at the bridge” comes from Horatius standing on guard at the bridge with two others and withstanding attacks. The story began to be depicted in art in the Renaissance. A poem by Lord Macaulay made the story popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

[39] References:

“This ‘un’s for a dose of Gamma rays at Kiukiang. This ‘un’s – lemme see – radioactive dust in the bronchial tubes at Afyon Karahisar. And this little bastard – uh – trenchfoot at Kransystav.”

“Sarge, what was the best piece you ever had?”

“A little redheaded half-Swede, half-Egyptian in Farafangana.”



Jiujiang, formerly translated Kiukiang or Kew Keang, is a prefecture-level city located on the southern shores of the Yangtze River in northwest Jiangxi, China. Jiujang literally means “nine rivers.” Its population was 4.7 million at the 2010 census.

Afyonkarahisar (“poppy, black, fortress”) is a city in western Turkey, the capital of Afyon Province. Its population was 173,100 at the 2010 census. Afyonkarahisar is one of the top leading provinces in agriculture, globally renown for its marble and globally largest producer of pharmaceutical opium.

I cannot find a Kransystav; I’m guessing Vonnegut was going for:

Krasnystaw, a town in eastern Poland with 19,750 inhabitants (as of 2010). It is famous for its beer festival called Chmielaki and for its dairy products.

Farafangana is a city (commune urbaine) on the south-east coast of Madagascar and capital of the Atsimo-Atsinanana region. There is an airport in Farafangana. One of the main crops in the region is black pepper.


It was eight miles through Homestead, across the bridge, and up the other side of the river to home. Not home, Paul thought, but the house where his bed was.


[41] Reference:

A Black Maria, its siren silent, (…) turned into the alleyway.



A slang/informal term for a police vehicle for transporting prisoners.

Oxford Dictionary gives its origins as:

Mid 19th century (originally US): said to be named after a black woman, Maria Lee, who kept a boarding house in Boston and helped police in escorting drunk and disorderly customers to jail.

Wikipedia – with no reference listed – gives the origin as:

Originally these police vans were horse drawn and so could take some time to arrive at a crime scene. “Black Maria” was a famous racehorse of the day, born in Harlem USA in 1826. The name was sardonically applied to the police carriages (which were also usually colored black).

Other sites reference this horse named Black Maria. A racehorse with the name in the 20th century is said to be named after the earlier Black Maria and on that Wikipedia page, the connection to the term for police van is referenced again.

The story of the horse seems more likely than the women running the boardinghouse, but I can’t get to the bottom of it.


“What have you got against machines?” said Buck.

“They’re slaves.”

“Well, what the heck,” said Buck. “I mean, they aren’t people. They don’t suffer. They don’t mind working.”

“No. But they compete with people.”

“That’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it – considering what a sloppy job most people do of anything?”

“Anybody that competes with a slave becomes a slave,” said Harrison thickly, and he left.



“Why are you quitting?”

“Sick of my job.”

“Because what you were doing was morally bad?” suggested the voice.

“Because it wasn’t getting anybody anywhere. Because it was getting everybody nowhere.”

“Because it was evil?” insisted the voice.

“Because it was pointless.”


[44] Reference:

“What’s a ghost shirt?” murmured Paul between prickling lips.

“Toward the end of the nineteenth century,” said Lasher, “a new religious movement swept the Indians in this country, Doctor.”

“The Ghost Dance, Paul,” said Finnerty.



Ghost shirt, sacred to certain factions of Lakota people, were thought to guard against bullets through spiritual power. The shirts did not work as promised, and when the U.S. Army attacked, 153 Lakota died, with 50 wounded and 150 missing at the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890).

Anthropologist James Mooney argued that the most likely source of the belief that ghost shirts could repel bullets is the Mormon temple garment (which Mormons believed protected the pious wearer from evil, though not bullets). Scholars believe that in 1890 chief Kicking Bear introduced the concept to his people, the Lakota.


“Don’t you see, Doctor?” said Lasher. “The machines are to practically everybody what the white men were to the Indians. People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don’t apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines.”


Nothing in Player Piano supports this thesis. These machines aren’t killing people. Suggesting a similarity between machines taking jobs (but raising the quality of life) and white men massacring Native Americans and taking their land leaves a bad taste.


Having it put like that, Do as we say or get killed, had the same liberating effect as the drug of a few hours ago had had. He couldn’t make his own decisions for reasons anybody could understand.

So Paul leaned back in his chair and began to take a real interest in what was going on.


[47] And as I teeter on the edge of a 2.5 or 3.0 rating:

Paul’s cellmate in the basement of police Headquarters was a small, elegant young Negro named Harold.


This is how elegant young Harold speaks:

“Fo’ two years, ol’ loudmouth and me done lived together. An’ evah last time some’un come on pas’, they hits ‘at ‘lectric eye, and ol’ loudmouth, he just naturally gotten shoot off his big ba-zoo.”


Vonnegut. You know better. I know you know better.

[48] Reference/Translate:

A dozen small red circles indicating the primary objective of the Ilium Putsch.


According to Merriam-Webster:

In its native Swiss German, putsch originally meant “knock” or “thrust,” but these days both German and English speakers use it to refer to the king of government overthrow also known as a coup d’etat.


“Most fascinating game there is, keeping things from staying the way they are.”


Recommended only for Kurt Vonnegut completionists (and even then only the ones who have read more than half of his output and are truly in it for the long haul).

Player Piano is the worst everyman-breaking-free-in-a-seeming-Utopia (but actually Dystopia) novel I’ve read. If you’re interested in the genre, read 1984, Brave New World or even Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day instead. The most impressive thing about Player Piano is seeing how much Vonnegut improves.

If you’re interested in Vonnegut, start with The Sirens of Titan (review) or Slaughterhouse-Five.

This Friday, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.


3 thoughts on ““Player Piano” (Post 2/2)

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