“To the Record” | Sandweiss on Player Piano

A Historian Sits at Vonnegut’s Piano

Eric Sandweiss


“To the record.”

It seems an oddly resigned cry with which to toast the failed revolution that closes Player Piano. Is this what it all comes down to—Paul Proteus’s final survey of the wreckage left by his comrades’ failed effort to upend the machinery of a soulless society, punctuated with a salute to “the record”? Who puts his life on the line for “the record”?
Maybe a historian.

Player Piano is a novel about engineers and managers. It pokes around at the underside of government and societies and labor and marriage and friendship. I expect to learn from my fellow bloggers on this site that it also contains something of physics and anthropology, and perhaps a kitchen sink, too. But I hope you’ll trust that I’m doing more than playing my expected role as Clio’s appointee to the Vonnegut Justice League if I point out that this dark tale’s author seems both captivated by and captive to the historical record.

Paul Proteus, a shape-shifter by name but not yet disposition, finds himself close to the top of the meritocracy of intellect that rules a mechanized postwar America. Yet he wonders, from the start, “if he wouldn’t have been more content in another period of history” (4). We’ll soon learn that Proteus is himself an armchair historian; he lectures his fellow managers on the lessons of two industrial revolutions—the first of which liberated people’s hands and the second their brains—and believes that they have together entered a third, this one to be won by “machines that devaluate human thinking” altogether (15). Aware that some of his own day’s machines (not to mention, as Homestead’s barflies might have added, the humble player piano that lends itself to the book’s title) “had been around in Edison’s time” (12), he sees himself perched between industrial ages; unlike the younger engineers nipping at his heels, Paul is old enough to remember watching Rudy Hertz, the master machinist whose movements he recorded in an effort to automate the assembly line that he now oversees. This is a pencil-and-slide-rule guy who still trusts himself to make the right checkers moves in the face of the computer that Fred Berringer has brought to humiliate him. Hired to subjugate creativity to efficiency, he nevertheless can’t help but admire the anarchic mechanical instincts of Bud Calhoun, a man who, in classic first-industrial-revolution fashion, can rig up a machine to do just about any crazy thing—when he feels like it.

In short, our hero has developed just enough perspective, as he enters his prosperous middle years, to want to avoid being “the instrument of any set of beliefs or any whim of history” (115). Yet until Vonnegut places before him an almost sadistic series of bad breaks—at work, at home, in the local tavern—this manager of managers “couldn’t possibly see how history could have led anywhere else” than to him, his job, his marriage, and the present moment (ibid.). He has for too long been Nietzsche’s historical man, trapped by his awareness of time, devoted to the necessity of orderly sequence—as much in the world at large as in Building 58 of the Ilium Works. Others around him recycle historical clichés, seemingly unaware of their ironic reframing (“Eternal vigilance was the price of efficiency,” intones his mentor, Dr. Kroner [73]; “Sic semper tyrannis,” says the rebel Ed Finnerty of the electronic regime that he hopes to undermine [60]). Homestead residents, seemingly resigned to their fate as Reeks and Wrecks, inhabit a community whose name matches that of the riverside city outside of Pittsburgh that had unsuccessfully, six decades earlier, mounted one of the nation’s most ambitious workers’ revolts. The members of the Ghost Shirt Society appropriate the totemic symbol of the Northern Plains uprising of 1890—without reflecting on that movement’s deadly failure. History just keeps echoing—distantly, imperfectly—while the novel’s characters seem to hear the echoes as recordings from one more machine that has taken away their ability to act for themselves.

But History, as the book’s denouement finally reveals, is the map, not the territory. As with the recorded sounds of Rudy Hertz’s movements at the lathe, as with the distant associations of words like “Homestead,” the past arrives before us as little more than a record. And aren’t records, as someone once said, made to be broken? Paul’s growing awareness that history’s books may be cooked, his effort to throw a wrench in time’s gears and exit the factory a free man, bring him to an old, unkempt farmhouse, “cut off from the boiling rapids of history, society, and the economy. Timeless” (151). There, Anita—who has happily fled from her own working-class history in Homestead—refuses his offer to begin a new life together, outside of “the boiling rapids.” She hopes instead to pillage the home for historical knickknacks and effects with which to decorate the residence of an attractive, upwardly mobile couple such as she believes them to be.

This is a domestic novel as well as a political one, and Anita proves a more powerful negative motivation to Paul than do his tyrannical masters at work. The more pains she takes to keep her husband on the track toward what she considers his inevitable greatness, the more Paul comes to see himself, like the errant cat whose gaudy death opens the novel, as victim, not master, of the industrial/managerial revolution. He is, he now realizes, unmoved by “the great omnipresent and omniscient spook, the corporate personality”—that spirit that, having been forged in the heat of wartime, now applies its cool ruthlessness to the American citizenry (63). First in slow steps and then in a precipitous final frenzy, he departs the historical path laid for him by his father, George Proteus, and begins the transformation promised by that other sharer of his name—a god whose form will change as we watch. No longer content merely to live as the “essence distilled” from humanity (11), no more a willing victim of the next industrial revolution, he will seize History. And if he fails in his moment, then he will have left behind something that will, in its way, change future lives: a new mark on the record.

I mentioned another sense in which Player Piano seems to me a historical novel, this one reflecting its author’s own place—witting or unwitting—in a historical drama not of his own making. Read as a document of its time, the novel suggests the perplexity of political opinion in the postwar US. Conditioned as we are to viewing Vonnegut’s work through the pacifist lens of his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and knowing the acerbic political opinions that he freely dispensed from the time of that book forward to his death, this first novel cannot help but startle us with its heavy-handed libertarian critique of a New Deal gone amok. Paul’s appeal, to Anita, for an appreciation of “the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect” (175) might have come from the pen of Ayn Rand. The traveling Shah of Bratpuhr, failing to grasp the meaning of the word “citizen,” insists on calling the workers that he sees “slaves.” Those dreary “Reeks and Wrecks” of the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (read “WPA,” “CCC”) go about their business with no sense of pride or individual ownership in their work, ordered about by the pashas of the National Manufacturing Council (read “National Labor Relations Board”), convinced by a steady diet of public relations that it’s better to lie idle than to starve (37), and that—in the words of the hectoring engineer who confronts a fictional malcontent in the play that Paul witnesses at the Meadows—“you, the consumer, are the big winner” in the industrial combine’s struggle to wrest autonomy from individuals (217).

Such satirical gibes at overweening government and consumerism weren’t necessarily signs, in 1952, of doctrinaire Republican conservatism—postwar Republicans had agreed in principle to corporate-government regulation in the interest of shared prosperity, even as they changed its terms in policies such as the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. But the author’s politics share as much with the Russell Kirk form of dogmatic conservatism, then taking hold of one edge of the political spectrum (and destined to claim a larger share of public attention with the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater for president), as they do with the leftist anti-authoritarianism with which we might more readily identify him in retrospect.

It may be fairer to say that Paul Proteus is, like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom or John O’Hara’s Julian English—two other midcentury fictional protagonists, similarly trapped in the social and economic gears of small, industrial mid-Atlantic cities—just trying to find his way (or, more precisely, his way out). Each faces an opportunity to profit, if he is willing, from the age of William H. Whyte’s Organization Man, of Nicholas Lemann’s American Meritocracy; all will fail the test in some way. Their response to life’s challenges will not be political but personal. Their inspiration, if any is possible, is as likely to come—as it does to Proteus—from the sight of Ed Finnerty, fallen Organization Man and future rebel, literally tearing up the historical record and rewriting it anew, “savagely improvising” at an antique player piano that was made to carry someone else’s tune forward through history (105).