Doing the Laundry with Player Piano | Sheldon on Player Piano

Rebekah Sheldon


I love Laundromats.

No, it’s true! They are perfect. In any decent-sized city, there’s bound to be a 24-hour Laundromat nearby. When we lived in Brooklyn, we would smash our bags of wash into the wheeled conveyances that I grew up calling “granny carts” but that Google tells me are sold as “utility wagons.” Now that I hear myself say it, granny cart troubles me a bit. Still, though, I like the idea that it gave me: that it is a possibility, even a happy possibility, jaunty and utilitarian both, to be an old woman on her own, still pushing her dirty clothes down the broken cement sidewalk. And that’s more or less why I love the Laundromat too. Laundromats are one of the everyday accommodations that make it possible to live a life on one’s own terms, whatever terms those might be. The Laundromat promises that, no matter what time of day, no matter who you are, the machines will take your quarters. For a little bit of money, you will be able to make your clothes clean. No wife required.

“‘Urdle-urdle-urdle,’ went the automatic washing machine. ‘Urdle-urdle-ur dull!’” (111)

Margaret Atwood could have taught Vonnegut a thing or two about doing the laundry. Marian McAlpin, the protagonist of her first novel, The Edible Woman, took the bus to the Laundromat.1 Clarification: She took the public bus to the self-service Laundromat. This is not Mother’s Helper, not Goodbye Blue Monday. This isn’t a domestic appliance. It’s public culture. And while the fact of Marian’s young womanhood is by no means forgotten, is indeed relentlessly brought back to her attention, Marian takes sustenance from the anonymous, uncaring efficiency of the rows of washers and dryers. It’s at the Laundromat, too, that Marian meets Duncan, who replaces (all cannily unknowing) her fiancé’s jovial normalcy with tantalizing ennui. “‘No!’ Duncan shouted back at her. ‘We’re escaping! Come on!’” (286). Their flight ends at a cliff above a pit, the land raw and exposed around a circular dirt roadway. The brickworks. It’s a trap of course, another ruse, another false flight, leading her away from the Laundromat. “‘You’ll be all right,’ she said to herself, ‘if only you can make it as far as the Laundromat’” (270).

The Laundromat embodies the promise of civil society.

See, any Kurt Vonnegut novel can be reduced to a single agitation, like the spindle on a blender. The plots are what happens when the machine begins to run.

In the case of Player Piano, the agitation is LABOR. A simple enough thing. Food, at first. To put food on the table. Bread and butter. Kitchen economics. Survival, family, reproduction. Soon enough the bare fact of sustenance becomes the stuff of economic and social policy; governance raises the problem of the one and the many, of who sacrifices for whom, of taxation and resource distribution, of mobility and migration. And those turn in turn to philosophical questions: What is the proper relation between society and individual? What makes for a meaningful life? Who is responsible for inequality? And these churn into fantasies of smaller, less encumbered labors: of living by the land, of skilled hands, of natural sovereignty and self-governance. A simple enough thing. Turning and turning and turning and

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. (74)

So says Offred, imprisoned narrator of Atwood’s famed The Handmaid’s Tale. She prefers hotel rooms to Laundromats, remembers the few moments waiting in a hotel room for her lover to arrive. This was delicious freedom: not the lover, but the linger. She might have been anyone.

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. (74)

It’s a mistake to imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale is about restricting women’s sexuality. It isn’t. It’s about restricting women to sexuality. It’s not about losing the lover, it’s about losing the linger. There are no loose women—or men for that matter. Gilead, like the America of Player Piano, is the place where everyone is known.

His glance passed over the hairy tan chest, frank gray eyes, and keg-sized biceps of the man on the book jacket, and his thoughts slid easily, gratefully, into the fantasy of the new, good life ahead of him. Somewhere, outside of society, there was a place for a man—a man and wife—to live heartily and blamelessly, naturally, by hands and wits. (147)

See the thing about Player Piano is this: Labor is always about sex, about sex and about gender.

(That story I told before? Are you sure about it? What if the first thing isn’t the body and its reproduction but the social and its reproduction? What if the simplicity of simple labor is a fantasy—a fantasy about sex and about gender?)

Consider Paul’s description of the Ilium works:

Out of the corner of his eye, a crazy, spinning movement caught his fancy, and he turned in his delight to watch a cluster of miniature maypoles braid bright cloth insulation about a black snake of cable. A thousand little dancers whirled about one another at incredible speeds, pirouetting, dodging one another, unerringly building their snug snare about the cable. (12)

It’s a mistake to imagine that Player Piano is about the horror of replacing man’s skills with a machine’s precision. It isn’t. It’s about being bound in snug snares by clusters of miniature maypoles and a thousand little dancers. It’s about women. “When the maypole comes into the picture, distance vanishes and we are standing in, of all places, Arcadia.”2 No wonder Paul has fantasies of the land. It’s not his hands he wants to reimagine; it’s his wife.

(Not for nothing does Westworld open with a player piano.)

Unexpectedly she burst into tears. “That I wasn’t any damn use to you at all! Finnerty was right,” she sobbed. “All you need is something stainless steel, shaped like a woman, covered with sponge rubber, and heated to body temperature.” (249)

Women and machines, their endless transpositions. EPICAC XIV, mind of the Ilium works, which is to man as a man is to a worm (120)—surely a motivated image—and so omniscient that the Holy Shah of Bratpuhr sings to it his religion’s central mystery; Paul’s wife Anita, warm rubber flesh and stainless steel skeleton, just a woman-shaped machine. Holy, hole. Everything, absent. Controlling, controlled. The heart of the social machine and its blind mechanical enactment. Can it be any surprise, then, that the novel sends the fey Dr. Pond to prevent Paul from purchasing his farm? It is of course women and womanly men who won’t let men be men.

Remember Fight Club: “We are a generation of men raised by women” (50).3

Fight club is not football on television. You aren’t watching a bunch of men you don’t know halfway around the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two-minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you’ve been to fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex. (50)

Surely there is no author more in debt to Vonnegut than Chuck Palahniuk. Read it like this: “We are a generation of men cut off from masculinity by the womanly arts of protection from harm.” See? Tyler Durden is just another name for Edward Finnerty, Finnerty just another version of the hairy chest and frank gray eyes of the book jacket. Women make men feel like men, and unmake them too. It’s a love triangle; it’s a mirror. Luce! Trinh! “A mirror of his mirror.” Remember!

But remember Offred as well: Every woman in her place, and every man too. O perilous contradictions! What is patriarchy ever to do?

Paul considered the notion of Doctor Gelhorne’s being the last of a race, and decided it was true. He had got to the top through a disorderly route that the personnel machines would never tolerate. Had machines been watching things when Gelhorne started his climb to the top, his classification card would have come flying out of the card files like an old Wheaties box top. (227)

Can it be any plainer? The rational society that men like Gelhorne built through wiles and muscle and intuition is too clean, too mannered, too careful, too knowing. In a word, too feminine. Men are like women; women are like broken machines, fleshy versions of the machines they tend to no purpose. Like Offred, they are restricted to sex, that is, to the role their sex sets out.

“And this is the ultrasonic dishwasher and clotheswasher,” said Dodge. “High-frequency sound passing through the water strips dirt and grease off anything in a matter of seconds. Dip in, take out, bingo!”

“And then what does the woman do?” asked Khashdrahr.

“Then she puts the clothes or dishes in this drier, which dries them out in a matter of seconds, and—here’s a nifty trick, I think—gives the clothes a spanking-clean outdoors odor, like they were dried in the sun, see, with this little ozone lamp in here.”

“And then what?” asked Khashdrahr.

“She feeds the clothes through this ironer, which can do what was an hour’s ironing before the war in three minutes. Bing!”

“And then what does she do?” asked Khashdrahr.

“And then she’s done.”

“And then what?”

[. . .]

“Live!” said Doctor Dodge expansively. “Live! Get a little fun out of life.” (164)

Let me be very clear. It would be a mistake to think that Player Piano is a technological dystopia. It isn’t. It is about the refusal of the public, the civil, the social in favor of a hypostatized domestic enlarged to fit every part of society. It’s a nightmare that results from the contradiction between the patriarchal fantasy of completely controlling women and the anxiety that such control is itself womanly. Its endgame is restorative violence. Reset the clock, return to the primitive, one more glass of Orange-O, one more turn around the board game.

Brahouna!” cried the Shah cheerfully. He waved. “Brahouna, Takaru.

“‘Live!’” translated Krashdrahr. (169)

Live! says the Shah, meaning that everyone would be happier if Delores were allowed to do the laundry the old-fashioned way—to return to the natural, the primitive, the authentic. But there is another alternative.

We might read the Shah’s satirical denigration of Delores’s ability to LIVE, in other words, not as a response to the problem of over-automation or a rejection of the facile promise of leisure time, but instead as pointing up the cost of their society’s phobic reassertion of traditional gender roles. That would be generous of us.

Or we could go to the Laundromat. Surely there is some wash to be done?

1. Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman (New York: Anchor Books, 1969).
2. Sharona Ben-Tov, The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 29.
3. Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).