the book: 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
[The scene is a clinic, where a painter is working on a mural and chatting to a man who’s about to become a father.]
A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgement Day.”
The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.
The woman had a lot of facial hair – an unmistakable mustache, in fact.
observations: When you’re dealing with science fiction, let alone Vonnegut, you kind of know that if the first sentence is “Everything was perfectly swell,” happy times will not be ahead. In this dystopia, everything is “swell” because a cure for ageing has been found. So death by old age has been eradicated; but by law the population is stable - precisely stable. For every birth, someone has to die, voluntarily or not. And the guy’s wife is about to have triplets.
This is a marvellous story, and it’s not Vonnegut’s fault that I was sorely misled by its being advertised – in e-book form – as a novella. It’s a short story, and a really short one. Saki-length. But, like with the best of Saki, you feel like you’ve been through the wringer by the end of just a few pages.
The title looks like a Prince song title, years ahead of its time. But it’s actually a six-digit phone number, the letters signifying numbers on the dial, same as on a modern keypad. The zero is pronounced “naught”, so it sounds as “To be or not to be,” which is a rather dark joke explained in the story. When I was a child, not long after this was written, we knew a conundrum: “What does this say? YYUR, YYUB, ICUR YY4ME." So really, we were way ahead of Prince, never mind textspeak. (It says “Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me.”)
An overseas cap - originally a WWI term - is like the one Veronica Lake is wearing in the amazing main pic.
Jordin Sparks (the 2007 American Idol winner) is modelling a Louis Vuitton musette for us, in the second pic. The defining feature is not the style or shape of the bag, but the long shoulder strap. This is often worn over the opposite shoulder by, for example, military personnel who can’t risk their cheaper and less decorative bags falling off.
Apart from the coarseness and the facial hair, and the lack of a coat or a cap or any purple, and the smiling, and the happy children nearby, and the brolly and the wrong kind of bag altogether, I think the lady in the extract must have seemed just like model Jean Patchett, in this 1954 magazine photo:
Vonnegut has featured on the blog before, here.
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