Great Stories and What I Learned from them…2 B R O 2 B, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This post series dissects great stories, in any genre, for the purposes of learning to be a better writer and a better reader.

Kurt Vonnegut:

He was an American author whose career lasted over fifty years. He was an essayist, a novelist and among other talents, a playwright. He was known for his satirical style. A lot of his work incorporated science fiction elements.

2 B R O 2 B possessed both satire and science fiction.

This story was a very terse and powerful representation of the future.

A short story punch to the jaw…

Summary

It is some unknown year in the future. Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is at a hospital in Chicago awaiting the birth of his children. They are expecting triplets. This should be a good thing. In this story, it is not. 

In this future, “Everything was perfectly swell.” So swell in fact that “All diseases were conquered. So was old age. Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.”

Sounds great, right? And if you were part of this happy population, you could choose to live as long as you wanted to. And if you wanted to die, you could contact the Federal Bureau of Termination to make an appointment. Their phone number was 2 B R O 2 B. The zero was pronounced as “naught”.

The population numbers were tightly controlled for the purposes of maintaining resources. So, in order for Edward’s children to be allowed to live, he had to find three other people willing to die. His father-in-law had been the only volunteer at the time of his children’s birth.

Pretty cool premise right?

How does the author convey all this? Through showing, not telling. Through character dialogue and character actions. 

Edward, the father to be, is sitting in the waiting room, struggling to deal with the potential death of two of his children. He needed two more volunteers.

In this waiting room is a man painting a mural on the wall. The painting is a garden. In the garden are doctors, nurses, and others. The doctors and nurses wearing white are tending to and maintaining, a beautiful garden. People in purple are in this same garden. They are yanking out weeds and cutting off tree limbs.

The people in white are life givers. The people in purple are life takers.

What does this man think of this painting? Through dialogue with an orderly, you learn that the painter thinks the paint-spattered drop cloth is a more honest representation of life.

Then entering the scene is Leora Duncan. She is wearing purple. She works for the Federal Bureau of Termination. The author wrote, “What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them” (I love that line by the way. Pure writing gold!). She is there to have her face painted on a body in the mural.

Note: The author writes that no matter how attractive a person might be when they start working for Termination Bureau that within five years they sprout hairs on their upper lip. I am not clear what this is supposed to symbolically represent. A dirty job, perhaps? If any of you know readers out there know, please share with me.  

While this is happening, Dr. Hitz arrives to announce that the children had been born. Dr. Hitz does not appreciate Edward’s, the father’s, gloomy disposition. Wouldn’t he agree that population control was important? Would he like to return to the dark days? When the earth was overcrowded and people were starving and didn’t have access to clean water?

Edward draws a revolver and shoots Dr. Hitz and says, “There’s room for one-“. He shoots Leora Duncan and says, “There! Room for two.”

Finally, he shoots himself, making room in this world for all three of his children.

The mural painter, looking down on this scene, makes an appointment with the Federal Bureau of Termination for that afternoon. He dialed 2 B R O 2 B.

What I learned:

  1. There is great power in writing to show. A character’s actions paint a better picture of who they are rather than telling the reader who you think they are. Showing is clearly a better style of writing to practice.
  2. Effective dialogue can relay mountains of information with a shorter word count. It could have taken one to two pages for the reader to learn why population control was believed to be so important. Instead, Dr. Hitz, while remonstrating Edward, conveyed all the information necessary in his dialogue.
  3. Taken together, showing and dialogue can create a compelling story that stays with you long after you’ve read it. These are skills I continue to work on.

Movie:

My son, the director, used this short story to make a short film when he was in high school. He did a great job and so did the high school actors! Check it out here:  2 B R O 2 B.

So, have you read this story? What did you think? Tell me!

Anyway, have a great week. Be kind to everyone.

 

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