And so it goes
Like many people, I discovered Kurt Vonnegut in high school, responding immediately to his mix of lowbrow humor, a disarmingly accessible writing style, and serious thematic concerns. Encouraged by Vonnegut’s wry narrative voice, pop-culture sensibility and absurdist humor, I eagerly devoured books like Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, Hocus-Pocus, Slapstick and Galapagos, This was in Vonnegut’s ‘70s heyday, when his novels found an appreciative and loyal audience.
Not everyone was a believer, of course. I remember reading a review of Galapagos in Time magazine that ended with the supremely unenlightening line: “If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.” The passing decades may have blurred my memory somewhat, but even as a snotty teenager I remember thinking that this was a supremely lazy way to write a review.
No matter. Vonnegut’s place in the pantheon of American letters is solidly etablished by now, five years after his death and 15 years after the publication of his last novel, 1997’s Timequake (a rather dodgy novel at that, even by Vonnegut’s nonstandard standards). One measure of his canonization is surely the release of The Library of America’s handscome, hardcover volumes of his writing. Volume I covers the years 1952-1962, and inludes three novels and a handful of short stories. These early works are interesting for the sparkles of inventiveness they display—and, at other times, for their relative conventionality.
Player Piano strikes this reader as a literary response to George Orwell’s 1984—published just four years previously—with its vision of a joyless dystopian future of displaced workers and overbearing mechanical intelligence. Paul Proteus is this book’s Winston Smith, no proletariat worker but a member of the technocratic elite who begins having doubts about the wisdom of the established order. What’s most noticeable about this story, though, is its relative familiarity. There’s little here that hadn’t been a staple of conventional science fiction for years already, and the writing style is, frankly, rather dull. Vonnegut’s sly humor and mischievous twinkle isn’t very much in evidence. Instead, the tone is one of rather plodding seriousness.
Moreover, the characters tend to operate as stand-ins for various philosophical points of view, with the women characters being especially weak. It’s tempting to credit Vonnegut with satirizing the limited role of women in professional society—the grasping wife, the gossipy secretary—but I suspect that’s a rather generous reading.
Things get a lot more interesting with his second novel, The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut announces his intentions on the very first page: “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself,” the reader is told in the book’s opening lines, “But mankind wasn’t always so lucky… The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression.” This opening salvo immediately reveals the elements that would make the author so beloved: a fearless willingess to tell stories on a cosmic scale while simultaneously keeping tongue in cheek. The Sirens of Titan tells a multi-stranded tale that incorporates time travel and interplanetary warfare side by side with a family drama and no small amount of pointed social commentary. It’s an effective combination.
Mother Night completes the trio of novels contained in The Library of America volume, and it’s one of Vonnegut’s odder stories. Trying to do something that few authors dare—to write a comic novel about Nazis—Vonnegut weaves a tale of one Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American-born Nazi collaborator who lived in Berlin during the war and worked as part of Goebbel’s vociferous propaganda machine. Except that it’s not that simple: Campbell now claims he was an American agent working in Germany at the behest of the CIA, sending out coded messages in the form of his radio-broadcast anti-Semitic rants. Is he telling the truth? It’s an open question, especially considering that Campbell is currently sitting in a cell in Israel, awaiting trial.
Mother Night introduces another technique that will become common in Vonnegut’s later novels: the choppy, disjointed structure. Given that the story itself doesn’t contain oodles of plot in the conventional sense of the word, it’s probably a good idea for the author to introduce suspense and narrative interest via this technique. This 180-page book contains 45 separate chapters, many only a page or two long, which allows the narrator—and the author—to bounce from incident to flashback to (apparent) non sequiter. This being Vonnegut, the pieces will always ultimately cohere, but as in The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night requires that the reader exercise some patience before the picture becomes clear.
Also within in this volume is a selection of short stories, which contain some of the most compelling writing here. “Harrison Bergeron” is a knockout of a story, a vicious satire of political correctness before that phrase even existed. It’s also interesting to see how the central element of “Harrison Bergeron”—the legally mandated equalizing of all human talents—is hinted at, to a much lesser extent, in The Sirens of Titan.
Other stories are strong too. “EPICAC”, “Unready to Wear”, and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” use the conventions and clichés of science fiction to level scorched-earth amounts of social commentary concerning consumerism, religion, race relations and anything else that dares to show its face. Only six stories are contained here, totaling fewer than 70 pages. A few more such stories would have made this an even stronger package.
So then: none of these three novels is Vonnegut’s best, and none of them is the one that I would recommend as a starting point for exploring the writer’s ouevre—that would be Slaughterhouse-Five. However, all three are engaging enough, and all contain elements uniquely Vonnegutian (if that’s not an adjective, it should be). The Sirens of Titan is probably the pick of the litter here, although the short stories should not be overlooked.
Ultimately, this sort of ranking is probably moot. Vonnegut has been established as an American treasure. Anyone interested in lively, unconventional storytelling owes it to him/herself to read something by him. Or re-read: as my own experience suggests, there is likely to be more to Vonnegut than we may remember.