Book Reviews: Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Slapstick

December 9, 2009

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.
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