The first Vonnegut book I read was Slaughterhouse Five. I was 14 and a friend of mine was reading it and back then I couldn’t stand the idea that any of my friends might be better read than I was so I had to run out and get a copy. I read it faster than seems possible now, and within a few years I had read everything else Vonnegut published, all the novels, the short story collections, his essays, everything. He’s the only author for whom I’ve read their collected letters. When people ask me who my favorite author is, Vonnegut is the first name that springs to mind.
In the years since that initial burst, I’ve gone back and reread all of Vonnegut’s novels, some of them more than once. No matter what it’s always an interesting and revelatory experience. Some of the novels have stood the test of time or even risen in my esteem. However, it’s been a bit more common to come away a bit disappointed. Some of that is just the fact that you can’t recapture a feeling. I’m not a confused teenager anymore and I don’t get the same subversive thrill out of an author making fun of the United States of America and God. The first time through Vonnegut seemed to say so many things I had been thinking but hadn’t been able to put into words. As I’ve gotten older that’s become less necessary to me.
Mother Night was one of my favorite Vonnegut novels on the first time around. It’s got a dynamite moral at its center, as outlined by the author in his forward. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The plot follows Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a minor playwright who was born in the US and raised in Germany. Before the outset of World War II Howard is recruited to be an American spy and he does so by sending out hidden messages during his Nazi propagandist radio show.
As the novel begins Howard is sitting in an Israeli jail, where he is writing his confession while awaiting trial for war crimes. Howard was such an effective propagandist for the Nazis, and so good at keeping his espionage a secret, that no one knows about what he did. As Campbell writes his story, Vonnegut takes the opportunity to describe for the reader the absurdity of modern warfare and the ridiculousness of America and its values.
It’s just that now I can see the seams a bit more easily. I can see that the story is over the top and the writing kind of clunky. I can see that there are no complex female or minority characters.
I used to love Kurt Vonnegut uncritically, but that’s no longer possible. I still think of Vonnegut whenever anyone asks for my favorite author though.