Book Reviews: Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Slapstick

I’ll admit I’ve been intimidated at the thought of reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Literature with a capital L is something I enjoy without feeling like I have all the tools to really take it apart and see how it works. Even then, with most Literature, I can talk about what I appreciate. Kurt Vonnegut, though, is a breed apart. Kurt Vonnegut’s work takes the notion of the Great American Novel and makes it feel foolish about itself. You can have high art without pretense. In fact, quite often Vonnegut tweaks the nose of Establishment Literature by delivering more social commentary through satire, black humour, the study of absurdity, and what can only be called science fictional elements than Fitzgerald managed to do with a hundred garden parties.

I read Slaughterhouse Five in the Fifth Grade, and I remember very little about it except that it was good in an unexpected way. I didn’t pursue him any further, because I was getting into Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters and Larry Bond in a big way at the time. Forgive me: I was ten, and techno-thrillers were at the high water mark of their awesomeness. One day I will go back and re-read Slaughterhouse, I’m sure. In the meantime, a good friend of mine has taken to educating me about Vonnegut one book at a time. Put any fourteen Vonnegut fans in a room, and they’ll each have a favourite novel that I should have read first. That’s one of the powers of the man: His work is all engaging, but each is highly individualized and eccentric, engaging readers’ own idiosyncrasies in the course of the narrative.

Whatever I ‘should have read’ first (whatever that means), I was handed a copy of Mother Night to start, and when I was done that I was given Slapstick. I’ve wrestled with how to talk about my experience with them for some time now, but I think I’ve got that squared away. I can’t promise there won’t be spoilers, but I can promise nothing I will say should in any way take away from your enjoyment of what are, in all truth, fascinatingly unusual works of fiction.

Mother Night was recommended to me as a good introduction to Vonnegut because I’m a Second World War history buff. The novel begins with an introduction by Vonnegut himself, explaining he’s been asked to edit the memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., a German-American who moved to Germany after the First World War and became a famous playwright in the interbellum years, writing romantic comedies and dramas for his beloved wife, Helga, an actress of some renown and the daughter of Berlin’s chief of police.

When the Second World War begins, Campbell becomes an American equivalent to the infamous
Lord Haw-Haw
: A man who got on the radio every day and told the English-speaking world that they were fighting for the wrong side. Campbell’s literary talents translated well into Nazi propaganda, and he hobnobbed with the upper echelons of Berlin’s National Socialist Party throughout the war. His wife goes missing during a German version of a USO show to the Eastern Front, and the war ends with the destruction of his in-laws’ family in the bombed out ruins of Berlin. He is arrested on war crimes charges and is expected to hang, or at least face a very lengthy prison stretch in Spandau after a Nuremburg Trial, but American Intelligence lets him go in secret: It turns out he had been passing hidden messages to the Allies throughout the war using a code he did not understand.

Campbell moves to New York, his life adrift. To the whole world he was the face of American collaboration with the Nazi regime. No one ever learns of his other role, and what could he tell them if he wanted to? He doesn’t know what information he passed on, only that he did so. His actions earned him a single get-out-of-jail-free card, but no redemption, and no peace. Good people are offended at his survival, and those who champion him are the White Supremacists of late 1950s-early 1960s America: A dubious bunch of allies to be sure.

Campbell eventually befriends a neighbour who turns out to be a lackluster member of the KGB. Through him he is reunited with his long lost wife, only to have that joyous experience twisted and ruined for him. A lynch mob of American veterans –led by the self-righteous but otherwise unremarkable man who arrested him in Germany at the end of the war– makes his life hell, and when he plans to escape, he almost falls into the hands of Communists out to prosecute him for crimes against humanity. In the end he surrenders himself voluntarily to Israel to stand trail for his actions during the war, at which point he is offered a chance to be redeemed in the eyes of the world, and declines.

The moral of the piece is that you should be very careful what you pretend to be, because that’s what you are to the world. It’s a wonderfully twisted idea: Am I supposed to be rooting for the public face of American Fascism? Is his private action enough for me to view him as a sympathetic protagonist? Is the suffering he endures in a loveless life after the war punishment enough for his skill in advancing the Nazis’ cause? Can one champion the falseness of a self-recognizing phony?

I don’t know. Honestly, the book left me conflicted, which I enjoyed. It’s nice to be thrust onto the horns of a moral dilemma by fiction. What is right and wrong? How many shades of grey can I be comfortable with?

Aside from the main plot line, there’s one scene that stands out in my mind, even all these weeks later: Campbell remembers being in an air raid shelter during the war, and a German woman becomes hysterical, shouting to the ceiling that she surrenders, that it’s not her fault, that she wasn’t for the war. Her husband slaps her into silence and marches up to the nearest Nazi officer, begging his wife’s pardon, which is quickly given. Vonnegut is a famous witness to the firebombing of Dresden, and I wonder how much of that scene is lifted straight from his own experiences. It struck me right down to the marrow. War is the most terrible thing in the world, especially to be on the losing side, especially to be on the losing side in a Fascist state where even your fear can brand you a traitor to a cause you don’t believe in, but must never confess you don’t believe in. Stunning stuff.

After I finished Mother Night, I was loaned my friend’s personal favourite, Slapstick. Vonnegut describes the book as the closest thing he will ever write to an autobiography. This is a great example of how ‘out there’ Vonnegut is: The narrator of the story is a man named Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, a seven-foot-tall twelve-fingered and toed, six-nippled, hundred-year-old president of the United States of America living in the ruins of Manhattan after two plagues have wiped out most of Western Civilization on an Earth where the force of gravity is no longer constant and fixed… I’m not kidding.

Vonnegut wrote the book following the death of his uncle. He started thinking about the nature of loneliness and the value of family. From there he came up with a hair-brained scheme to create artificial family bonds throughout America, so that no one would ever be alone again. From there (some how) he translated that thought into a theory of social science that could be applied by a political figure. Hence Wilbur.

How did Wilbur come up with the idea? Well, Wilbur is one half of a freakish pair of twins. Wilbur’s sister Eliza is his female equivalent, and when they are in close proximity they are the smartest entity in the history of the world. Wilbur works as a sort of left-brain for their gestalt entity: He is logical and rational, gifted with words. His sister is the right side of the brain, all creativity and passion and exuberance. Their childhood is spent as a pair of pampered shut-ins until they realize their parents wish they were ‘normal.’ Their attempts to be normal frightens everyone so badly that they are separated: Wilbur, much reduced in intelligence, is sent off to a prep school, then medical school to become a pediatrician. His sister is committed to an asylum.

The America they live in is winding down. Fossil fuels are becoming exhausted, and a long decline is hinted at throughout the book. The Chinese, meanwhile, have walled themselves off from the rest of humanity and pursued a new course of science and evolution that sees them unlock secrets of extra-dimensional transportation and miniaturization. They share these secrets only obliquely and begrudgingly in exchange for knowledge they have not yet discovered on their own. The genius of the Swain twins includes a theory to alter gravity. It is strongly suggested that the Chinese take this revelation and tamper with the force of nature to the detriment of everyone but themselves.

I really can’t give it all away. I think I have demonstrated enough already to suggest it’s quite a read. Vonnegut’s thesis of a society built upon extended artificial family is realized through Wilbur’s presidency. Civilization as we know it collapses under an energy crisis, a series of plagues, and then civil wars between petty despots carving up what is left of the United States, but the extended families –divided up by objects of nature and numbers inserted at random into everyone’s middle name– create a new reality that brings comfort and community into anarchy. Meanwhile, Eliza has died during a Chinese-arranged visit to Mars, and she finds a way to communicate with Wilbur from beyond the grave that he should hurry up and die: The afterlife is a dismal place, but perhaps, when brought together again, their genius can reorganize it into something better, just as they did to the living world.

The novel ends rather abruptly. Wilbur dies after his hundredth birthday, and his adventures in the afterlife are, unfortunately, undocumented. The book ends with an unsatisfying whimper as one of Swain’s slave-owning neighbours jots out an extended epilogue to wrap up the loose ends with limited success. You can almost feel the author’s lack of enthusiasm to finish the manuscript once his point had been made. It was almost an exercise in a stream of conscious writing rather than a true book with a beginning, middle and end. It’s amazing in spite of this.

Slapstick, despite its underwhelming and abrupt finish, is a remarkable book for me as both a reader and a writer. Maybe it’s my background in historical fiction, but I am suspicious of thin tomes. Both Mother Night and Slapstick can be shot through in a matter of hours, but they resonate with me out of all proportion to the length of their prose. I found myself thinking of a Vonnegut-esque plot, and I have the sneaking suspicion I could write the thing beginning to end in a week. I think I’m going to give it a try, too. Meanwhile, I’m going to read everything that man has written. He’s worth it.

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