Angry Sordid Present | Elmer on Player Piano

Jonathan Elmer


An insurrection erupts, and is crushed. We are in the years following World War III, and the United States has emerged victorious again. Player Piano is set, more or less, in our present time (Vonnegut tells us that “the characters are modeled after persons as yet unborn, or, perhaps, at this writing”—1952—“infants”). Of course, there has not yet been any World War III—unless of course this last war has spanned the globe in fits and starts and unfolded as a series: Vietnam, Chile, Falklands, Somalia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan again, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan forever . . .

As had been the case in World War II, superior technology had been decisive—“production with almost no manpower,” which really means “destruction with almost no manpower”—like drones. The new Pax Americana exalts engineers and managers, and demeans everybody else. The president is a cipher. Those left behind by pervasive computerization and automation go to the Army, or work for Reconstruction and Reclamation. They enjoy considerable creature comforts, like dust precipitators, so official ideology has it that no one should be unhappy with his lot in life. (Jason Chaffetz: those individuals complaining about increased premiums on their insurance should just forego the latest iPhone.) In fact, almost everyone is unhappy with his lot—enraged, resentful, despondent. The elites have passed them by, forgotten them, and assaulted their sense of worth. There is a dangerous stirring in the body politic—a brewing violence born of a wish to return to a past in which people were more important than metrics, or appliances, and in which good old-fashioned human labor had dignity.

As I said, Player Piano is set in the present—more or less.

The postwar corporatism depicted in Player Piano was real enough in the 1950s, and was the focus of a flurry of treatments: David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950); White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956) by C. Wright Mills; William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956); and the novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) by Sloan Wilson, which was made into a movie the following year starring Gregory Peck. These studies, like Vonnegut’s novel, worried about what the business world was doing to the psychic health of its middle managers. But Vonnegut is actually more interested in the psychic life of the displaced and disempowered.

This is not to say we don’t get to know the uber-elite Paul Proteus pretty well. But he’s not a reliable guide—and that is precisely the point of his character. “Proteus” was a Greek sea god with the power to see the future but who shape-shifted to evade ever having to do so. Paul Proteus is, above all, “protean”—which is to say, he can be turned; something both the establishment and the insurgent Ghost Shirt Society try to do. Paul is not entirely without a moral compass: he does end up surrendering with Von Neumann, Finnerty, and Lasher, staying true to his role as class traitor. But when he reflects on the motives the other three had, his own uncertainty becomes clearer. It’s almost like he just wanted to join something, willingly and at risk, rather than pretend to have chosen the world into which he was born.

There is much pretense in Paul’s world—“I love you, Anita”—but nowhere more so than during the cringe-worthy scenes at the Meadows, the retreat where the managers gather on color-coded teams and compete. Vonnegut’s is recognizably a business novel—a robust tradition in American literature, which has understandably been fascinated by the monstrosities of capitalism. One could argue this tradition goes back to Melville’s “Bartleby”—as clear-eyed a look at existential dread in the office until we get to Kafka—but The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) perhaps makes a cleaner start. That’s because Howells focuses on what the capitalist’s insatiable desire does to the soul. Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Dreiser are the great hymnists of this ruthless desire, and the titans of will that serve as its vehicle—Dreiser’s Cowperwood, or Sinclair’s Daniel Plainview, so brilliantly brought to the screen by Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

A telling remnant of this character in Player Piano is the true big cheese, Doctor Gelhorne—not an engineer, but rather a man who turns over businesses—taxidermy to trucking, trucking to ice cream in Indianapolis, and so on. Gelhorne has no time for the bullshit “meritocracy” that is playfully affirmed at the Meadows, and less playfully in the society at large, with its computerized assessments based on IQ: “Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”

Still, Gelhorne is the exception. The corporate ideology at work in Player Piano is less Robber Baron than Silicon Valley. Its sacred saint is an engineer—Edison. Its credo is not survival of the fittest, or even the beneficence of the invisible hand, but rather the essential good of technological progress. Vonnegut was early onto this sea change. Proteus, and the world he exemplifies, is less like Gould, Huntington, or Carnegie than the monosyllabic giants of info-capitalism: Jobs, Gates, Dell, Brin, Musk.

As I said, Player Piano is set in our present—“a sordid, realistic present, an angry present.” Its world is already no longer Gelhorne’s, or Cowperwoood’s in The Financier (1912). Its world more closely resembles Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013)—with its team-building mania and assertion of purity. But it is important to see that beneath these differences, there is a fundamental ideological continuity of message: those who have succeeded have done so because nature has said it must be so. A young Frank Cowperwood witnesses a grotesque battle between a lobster and a squid in The Financier, and draws his grim survival-of-the-fittest conclusions. In Eggers’s The Circle, the adventurer CEO Tom Stenton brings back a transparent shark from the bowels of the Marianas Trench. It devours everything, and you can see it doing so. For Stenton and his minions, it is a thing of terrifying beauty.

There are no marine marvels in Player Piano. But it has its potent symbols nonetheless. The title itself is one. In a novel about the degradations brought on by machines and automation, why spotlight a piano that plays music with no human player? Why spotlight a device—an extraordinarily popular one—that doesn’t just perform unpleasant tasks, but makes music, presumably a reserved human joy? Well, because ultimately Vonnegut wants to forgive the human propensity to delight in manufacture, in making and remaking machines. After the insurrection has destroyed all the machines in Ilium, men and boys pick through the rubble they created to find ways to fix this, jerry-rig that. Both the destruction and the resurrection of the machines are presented as blind forces, beyond the abilities of any experts to control. And what is more, the player piano can be both automatic and responsive to a human player, and Finnerty plays it to prove it.

The other crucial symbol is the tree—more specifically the oak that serves as the fetish object for the elites at the Meadows. Here we go into lower strata of American ideology. The fiasco of the insurrection looks a lot like cosplay—and it is. Vonnegut knows this, as does Paul, as does Lasher: “Childish like any uniform,” says Lasher. The voluntary societies so characteristic of US civic society are in play—Shriners in fezzes, Mardi Gras Indians, Luke Lubbock in his regalia. Both the authorities and the rebels play at being Indians, perhaps channeling the cosplay of the Boston Tea Party. The solitary tree, the oak, embodies a worldview committed to hierarchy—trunk, then branches, then twigs. Beneath it all—roots, ultimate authenticity. The colony in seventeenth-century Connecticut famously secreted their charter in the hollow of an oak when they felt threatened by the crown. And the blasted tree is the preferred symbol of inevitable destruction—Chingachgook, the last of the Mohicans, is likened to a blazed tree in a clearing, “barked” like the sabotaged oak at the Meadows. The point is the tree represents the proper order of the world—for all sides, in any conflict. And for that reason, it escapes conscription.

Vonnegut’s famous moral detachment—something we will see much more of—shadows the conclusion of Player Piano. Was this insurrection, so easily crushed, worth anything at all? Were these non-elites, gleefully destroying machines and then contentedly putting them back together, worth trying to save from their misery? Vonnegut studiously avoids saying one way or the other. But I suspect he agrees with Jefferson’s astonishing assessment of 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”