Friday, September 24, 2010

Best Vonnegut in Ages

A month or two ago my roommate and I were bonding over a mutual admiration of Kurt Vonnegut, he told me his favorite Vonnegut was Mother Night, which I had never read before.  A bit later I was walking around, wondering what book I'd read next.  I stopped in a cluttered used bookstore near my house, remembered my conversation with Nate, checked the area of their stacks that seemed to correspond to the letter V (again, very cluttered this bookstore) and they had but one Vonnegut on hand: an old copy of Mother Night.  Just like that.

(This is the edition I found.  Yes, I was a little uncomfortable reading a book with a swastika featured prominently on the cover in public, just as I'm a little uncomfortable posting a picture of it on my blog.)

It had been years since I had read a new (to me) Kurt Vonnegut book and a fine experience returning to a favorite author.  Mother Night is the story of a Howard Campbell, an American playwright who gains fame in immediately pre-WWII Germany and is then urged by an American secret agent to accept a job as a Nazi propagandist, secretly disseminating secret messages from American spies in his nightly Nazi broadcasts.  During the war, Campbell becomes a hero and source of strength to the Germans and Nazi sympathizers at home in America and an enemy and traitor in the minds of most Americans (in fact, Campbell is later told that only three people knew he was an agent).

But the story of Mother Night mostly takes place after the war when Campbell has returned to America and lives as something of a hermit in Greenwich Village and his past rushes in to catch up with him . . . but the whole story is told by Campbell as he writes his memoirs from an Israeli jail, awaiting trial for his war crimes . . . so the whole time, as with a lot of Vonnegut, you know where this story is going to wind up.  The question, as it often is, is just how it's going to get there.

I found Mother Night striking for a few reasons: First, it is definitely the darkest Vonnegut book I've ever read.  In most Vonnegut books, no matter how grim things get, there is still an undercurrent of faith in, admiration of, or hope for humanity; but this one is awful bleak.  Second, Mother Night struck me as something of a companion to or clearinghouse for unused ideas for Vonnegut's most famous novels, Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle . . . it was like Vonnegut had a few more things he needed to say about World War II and a few more human institutions/belief-systems he had to disclose as frauds.  Also, Cat's Cradle and Mother Night share a similar framing device: narrators who have been given the mission of writing the story of their lives and their worlds who choose for themselves similar fates when the task is complete out of defiance to what they view as the controlling powers of their lives.

But I don't mean to say that the book was entirely grim and joyless, the book still features ample dosages of Vonnegut's absurd humor, such as a chapter dedicated to the biography of an American dentist committed to the lifelong mission of proving, through dental-research, his white supremacist beliefs.  And then there's was Robert Sterling Wilson, the Black Fuhrer of Harlem, who I'll dare to call one of Vonnegut's finest comedic creations.

No comments: