Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Confessions by Kanae Minato, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Various works by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.
When I pick up a book I have a rough rule of thumb: nothing that can possibly happen to anyone in the real world today. It is rare that I don’t read anything that is covered by fantasy, science fiction, horror or magic realism. The above examples are the closest I come to reading what some might call normal or contemporary fiction. Of those examples, I haven’t really enjoyed Moore and Minato. The rest I’ve loved. Having just read Mother Night I thought I might investigate why.
I set myself a meaningless challenge at the start of 2015 which goes against my usual dislike for conformity. I plan to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. And so I come to Mother Night. Published in 1961, it was his third novel, following the science fiction of Player Piano and Sirens of Titan. I didn’t choose the read non-genre other than within the limitations of my own challenger.
This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. It is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This is a literary trick I like and dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. The best example is probably The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). The protagonist is an American who moved to Germany as a young boy in 1923 and then a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. He is now awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he recounts his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested. Incidentally, this is the first time Vonnegut uses his ‘so-it-goes’ approach to narrative, which I’ll come across again later in the year. Admittedly, in Mother Night the author plays with fiction and narrative, so although there is no fantastical elements, it is far from straight forward fiction. It is satire, as black as night. It is speculative fiction at its best.
Mother Night is clever, funny, bleak and brilliantly written. Vonnegut was a practiced writer before he became a novelist. His debut was outstanding and this isn’t far behind in terms of technical achievement. The plot is interesting enough but it is the themes and characters that keep you interested. Campbell feels like a classic unreliable narrator. He describes his motivations but remember, he is on trial in Israel for being a Nazi. How honest is he being? Only the actions of others hint at the truth. Vonnegut is so clever with his plotting and how he plays with the reader.
I think I’m happy enough to read what might be described as non-genre fiction but it appears there are some conditions. Literary tricks. Metafiction. Playing with the reader. Dark comedic satire. And if the list above is examined carefully, none of it could actually happen in the real world under normal reality rules and conditions. Mother Night is not science fiction and is not alternative history. It is not fantasy in the traditional sense. However, most good science fiction tells the reader something interesting about the human condition, either on an individual or global level. Vonnegut achieves this in the 175 pages of a memoir of a war criminal. Genius.