While Vonnegut’s individual novels are not amongst my absolute favourites, as a writer, he reflects my politics more than any other. I’m not sure why that is. As a collected body of work, I feel it’s pretty much spot on; matching my own world view. Last year, I decided to read all his novels in publication order, so I can see how his style progressed and why his writing resonates so much with me.
Was Vonnegut a cynic? He was cuttingly critical of many aspects of society for sure, and found failings in most aspects of humanity. Wealth, democracy in particular and politics in general, war (of course), art – both writing and painting – and the very nature of existence came under his critical glare. He wouldn’t have been surprised at the events of 2016, but I think he’d have been horrified all the same. So it goes.
Previous to this little adventure, I’d read The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake and his non-fiction book A Man Without a Country (2005).
And so to his novels:
Player Piano (1952)
Synopsis: In the near future, all labour is carried out mechanically, so that humans don’t need to work. However, there is conflict between the higher classes who are the designers and engineers and managers, and the lower classes, who no longer have a place in the world. Set after a third world war, Dr. Paul Proteus is a middle manager type who is becoming deluded with his factory and life. Meanwhile, the Shah of Bratpuhr – a kind of future Dalai Llama – is having a tour of America, trying to understand how it works.
Comment: Written not long after WWII, where Vonnegut served, this debut novel has classic SF tropes, while not really written in the style of science fiction of the time. Is a life worth the cost of war? Where’s is humanity’s place in a world of increasing mechanisation? Prescient themes even today. An average man finds himself increasingly at odds with the world he’s forced to live in. Vonnegut is struggling to find himself in post-war America. As I said in my review, “Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia…and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction.”
This is a startlingly brave piece of debut fiction, with wit and bite. It is fairly different in style to much of his later work, interestingly, having an almost traditional prose style, and none of the characters feature in subsequent books. It harks back to the likes of We (1921) and even Brave New World (1932). We now live in the future that Vonnegut feared!
The Sirens of Titan (1959)
Synopsis: Despite being a fairly short novel, a lot of plot is crammed into The Sirens of Titan. A lucky and rich man – Malachi Constant – is involved with a potential interplanetary war, and travels to Mars, Mercury and Titan. This is the story of his downfall at the hands of Niles Rumfoord. Another wealthy man, and another space explorer, Rumfoord enters a phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum: “those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.” He exists as a quantum wave and can appear in multiple places in both space and time. When earth crosses his existence, he appears. He also meets a Tralfamadorian on Titan.
Comment: This was my first ever experience of Vonnegut, many years ago. I figured at the time that he was just a SF author. I didn’t really ‘get’ the book as more than just a bonkers space adventure. This time around, I enjoyed it less as a tradition science fiction adventure but a whole lot more as a satire on wealth and power. Of course, it was written during that golden age of SF when not much was known about the planets of the solar system and therefore aliens were often found living on planets such as Mars and Mercury. Most of the characters are pastiches of the rich, but don’t have a free will of their own. They are clearly puppets of Vonnegut’s and perhaps his first dalliance with metafiction, albeit disguised as a traditional SF adventure.
There is so much to admire about Vonnegut’s imagination here, especially his embracing of the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and his bleak vision of free will. Some might say he is a misanthrope, but what liberty do we really have? I say he’s onto something here. The Sirens of Titan also marks the debut of reoccurring characters and ideas.
Mother Night (1961)
Synopsis: Vonnegut finally nails his signature style in this complete turnabout from his previous works. This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. and is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This literary trick dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. Campbell is awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he is recounting his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested.
Comment: What is it about bleak I like so much? Or is it only when utterly black but clever metafiction comes into play that it resonates? Campbell is a terrific character and the classic unreliable narrator. You sympathise but are sceptical. We never really know how truthful his accounts are. After all, he was a propagandist.
Vonnegut is now into the full swing of his re-occurring themes and motifs. He understands both writing as an art, and what it takes to keep the reader interested. He is a student of humanity and that’s why his misanthropy works throughout his oeuvre. “So it goes” makes its first appearance; his famous phrase – a musing on fate. Campbell reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five. War is a major theme, and harks back to Vonnegut’s own service. War is stupid (my naïve opinion). War is horrendously stupid (Vonnegut’s more learned opinion). It is a fake autobiography, as many of his later works will be. Vonnegut isn’t shy about telling the reader that this is metafiction as he deconstructs his characters from his ‘editors’ point of view.
Cat’s Cradle (1963)
Synopsis: Author John wants to write a book about what some significant Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Felix Hoenikker is a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John contacts Hoenikker’s children to interview for the book. John finds out about something called ice-nine, created by Felix and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine can turn water into ice on contact. If it ever gets into the planet’s ecosystem, all rivers and oceans will freeze. Meanwhile, John ends up on a fictional island of San Lorenzo, which has a nihilistic faith and a very unusual society.
Comment: Back into a more traditional narrative plot here, Cat’s Cradle still managers to rings all Vonnegut’s literary bells. And boy is it bleak. It is an incredibly complex novel – probably Vonnegut’s most challenging in terms of concepts and plotting despite its short length. Hence why I love it. It pushes all my buttons. A proper narrative, delightfully satirical prose and all of Vonnegut’s themes. I love the idea of the researched book as a plot driver and the characters are all cool. Vonnegut’s confidence in his ability and his handle on his beliefs are fully formed and that’s why this is such a delight. Discussions on free will (the artificial religion that delights in the inevitability of everything) and the nature of humanity’s relationship with science (the development of the apocalyptic Ice-9) make this proper science fiction satire.
While Slaughterhouse Five is a better book, Cat’s Cradle is a more complete work of fiction.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
Synopsis: Eliot Rosewater is a millionaire who develops a bit of a conscience. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” He is, of course, a veteran of WWII. He basically spends the novel trying to help people while a lawyer tries to prove that Elliot is insane so he can take a cut of the Rosewater fortune by diverting it to a distant relative. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution after having a proper breakdown. He is then visited by his father, the lawyer and Kilgore Trout, his favourite science fiction author.
Comment: And now it’s time for Vonnegut to savage the rich and their class. Or more importantly, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the damage wealth can do to both the individual and society. Greed corrupts, obviously.
And welcome to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego. And the lawyer visits the Rumfoords in Newport, from Sirens of Titan. However, there’s not much else about this novel that stands out for me. It has all the satirical bite and humour that you’d expect, but the plotting is a little uninteresting and the theme, while important, is as one-dimensional as Vonnegut gets. Not saying it’s bad, but not his best in terms of story and ideas. The characters are interesting enough, with altruistic Elliot being a particular standout across all Vonnegut’s fiction (and indeed features again as we shall see). I suspect Vonnegut sees his as the human ideal; generous, incorruptible and compassionate.
Synopsis: The greatest of Vonnegut’s novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death to provide the full title is the story of Billy Pilgrim. But it’s really the story of Vonnegut’s experiences during WWII in Dresden. Although Billy might be an unreliable narrator as he also recounts the time he was kidnapped by aliens and held in a zoo with a film actress named Montana Wildhack. He also claims to have travelled in time; or at least experiences flashbacks of his life as a prisoner in the Dresden slaughterhouse. While under psychiatric care he meets the aforementioned Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the novels of Kilgore Trout. It is a this point that Vonnegut introduces the alien Tralfamadorians, who experience all time simultaneously and see death as nothing particularly important.
Comment: So it goes. Mortality, war, free will, metafiction, re-occurring characters (Rosewater, Campbell from Mother Night, a relative of the Rumfoords, Kilgore Trout), humour, death, satire, religion, American life. This is peak Vonnegut. But throwing everything at this story isn’t the dog’s dinner it might have been. Vonnegut skilfully takes the reader on a journey through the horrors of war and been held against one’s will. Having really been beaten in a Dresden slaughterhouse, it is remarkable that he writes this tale with such humour and verve. It must have been painfully difficult to fictionalise the horrors he went through. Yet…Vonnegut’s fatalistic ‘so it goes’ brings both a wry smile and a shiver of bleak inevitability regarding existence – in an entertainingly witty science fiction romp.
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Synopsis: Described as the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday puts Kilgore Trout front and centre for the first time. Not the success he’d hoped to be, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival where businessman Dwayne Hoover is kingpin of the city. Hoover might be losing his mind but takes an interest in Trout. After reading one of his novels, Hoover believes he is the only person in the universe with free will, thinking the novel to be factual and goes on a rampage! The book has a typically Vonnegutian piece of metafiction as a code, with the narrator bestowing freedom on Trout.
Comment: This is another complexly plotted satire from Vonnegut that dabbles in his many familiar themes. It is a dark as they come, with death and mental health at the forefront, along with of course, the idea that humans are not as free willed as they think. Are we nothing more than biological machines destined for nothing more meaningful than death? Probably. In previous novels, there has been a focus on bigger picture stuff (war, the universe, big business, wealth, etc) while Breakfast of Champions is a more personal story.
As it essentially features a couple of white men, this is as close to Vonnegut’s viewpoint portrayed in characters as you’ll find. Oddly, I found it less engaging than many of his other works because of this. While the themes resonate, and its ace to read a story with Trout as the main character, I was less interested in Hoover and his family than many of Vonnegut’s characters. Trout is an optimistic trier…always writing and always hoping for that great science fiction novel. More re-occurring characters pop up, including Francine Pefko, who was a secretary in Cat’s Cradle.
Synopsis: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! might be described as science fiction but only in the loosest sense of the term. Set in a near future when New York City is somehow in ruins, this follows Vonnegut’s now traditional style of being a fictional autobiography. This time it is by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. He lives in the collapsed Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter and her partner. Swain is cut off from the rest of society due to his ugliness. He has a twin sister, and they have an unusually creative bond; as if they were two halves of a superior brain. Eventually, Dr. Swain becomes the President, devolving the government as global oil runs out, while the Chinese miniaturise themselves.
Comment: I didn’t really warm to Slapstick and I’m not sure why. I didn’t buy the science fiction elements, especially the Chinese plans, even though I like that Vonnegut depicts society collapsing as oil runs out. I found this one a bit too scattershot, and failed to engage with the characters. Maybe that’s the point, however, as the main themes are loneliness and isolation.
The religious satire elements are fun, however. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is a nice creation and allows Vonnegut to explore is fatalistic view of life with no afterlife.
Synopsis: Walter F. Starbuck had recently been released from prison after serving time for his “comically” small role in the Watergate Scandal (1972). It follows Vonnegut’s standard fictional autobiography trope. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one. Starbuck spends the whole novel pontificating on both American history and on how he ended up in prison in the first place, talking about paranoia and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.
Comment: Jailbird was as close as I’ve come to losing patience with Vonnegut. There is almost no story here and I felt little sympathy for the character of Starbuck. Of course, Vonnegut’s ideas and rants and gags still make this a worthwhile read, but I just wish that like his earlier novels, he’d stuck to the idea of exploring them here with a decent narrative and interesting characters. His exploration of big business – exemplified through his fictional corporation, RAMJAC, which owns almost every other business in the book – is as cutting as ever. And there’s not enough bite in the buttocks of the Watergate affair either. It needed more comment and criticism of the whole debacle.
Interesting, a character in prison with Starbuck claims to be Kilgore Trout. But it probably isn’t, just someone claiming to be him. However, many of Vonnegut’s other traits are missing here. There is no science fiction or absurdism. In Vonnegut’s other novels, Trout is a great storyteller with wondrous ideas, but you never get any exerts of his writing – almost the opposite of Vonnegut here. There aren’t any characters of note that can be seen in other works. There’s a lack of black humour in the prose. It is, perhaps, simply not Vonnegut enough.
Deadeye Dick (1982)
Synopsis: Poor Rudy Waltz. Having committed accidental manslaughter as a child – he kills a vacuuming, pregnant woman by shooting a shotgun into the air – he lives his whole life feeling guilty and trying to make amends. Perhaps as a result of the guilt, he spends his life sexually neutral. Now, as a middle-aged man, he tells of how his hometown, Midland City, has been destroyed by a neutron bomb.
Comment: At least Vonnegut is back to storytelling and sympathetic characters here. There’s a lot to like about Deadeye Dick but the sympathy you feel for Rudy is perhaps the standout. It’s rare in a Vonnegut novel that the main character is more memorable than Vonnegut’s themes or satire.
Midland City is the place were Trout and Hoover meet in Breakfast of Champions and represents the blankness of middle America. Not a place Vonnegut has a lot of faith in. Or maybe it’s American society as a whole. I suspect you need a relatable character (not that we’re all accidental murders) if your sub-text is that society is so pointless we may as well nuke it. I do think that the plot gets a little meandering in places and loses its way towards the end, but I enjoyed spending time with Rudy as he tries to make up for his mistake.
Synopsis: This is the story of a motley crew of souls collected in Ecuador, about to go on a cruise to the famous islands. The narrator is the million-year-old spirit of Leon Trout, Kilgore’s son. Having died on a ship that is converted into a cruise liner, he has unique viewpoint as a global financial crisis sends everyone into a panic. The mismatched band of travellers eventually end up shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia as a pandemic renders Earth infertile. Their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures.
Comment: An odd one this, and my least favourite, although still with plenty of merit. Most of the novel, in which the characters are introduced and come together before the fated cruise, reads like a farce, or a series of blackly comic misadventures. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, so when various tragedies strike, they have little impact on me as a reader.
Of course, it is the main theme that is the redeemer. Vonnegut’s main issue throughout his career might be called the stupidity of humanity, despite the big brain of the species. Here he addresses it directly. The last remaining humans evolve into swimmers, who have a suitably small brain. Nice. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance again. He tries to get his dead son into the afterlife (he fails, which leads to the narration), an unusual role for the elder Trout. Less is made of his writing career than in his other appearances in Vonnegut’s novels.
There is an interesting literary device which again elevates this book above the ordinary. Vonnegut puts an * before any character’s name if they are about to die. So it goes.
Synopsis: Fictional abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian describes his later years while writing his autobiography, at the insistence of a strange woman who inserts herself into his life some time after his wife dies. Karabekian sees himself as a failed artist, although with great talent, after an incident with some paint that faded to nothing. He describes his apprenticeship as he’s writing his autobiography, while defending his secret project from Circe, his new and annoying house guest.
Comment: Vonnegut versus art. Something a bit different and all the more enjoyable for it. Bluebeard goes all meta on meta. Not only is this a fictional autobiography, but it’s about the writing of a fictional autobiography. What’s not to love? Vonnegut is his usually forthright self, but unusually focused. While he touches on war and death, this is Vonnegut’s change to critique the art of creation; both painting and writing. How important is perspective when judging talent? And what about commercial or other success? The relationships between characters are perhaps Vonnegut’s most inciteful too.
This is also Vonnegut’s statement that it is men who have screwed everything up, and now maybe the women should have a go.
Rabo Karabekian previously featured in both Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, keeping up the traditional through-thread, tying all Vonnegut’s work into a complete piece of fiction.
Hocus Pocus (1990)
Synopsis: Hocus Pocus, or What’s the Hurry, Son? is the non-linear story of Eugene Debs Hartke who is a Vietnam War veteran. After being recorded being jokily un-American by the daughter of a right-wing commentator, Eugene is sacked from his job as college professor. So he gets a job in a prison. There is a breakout and the inmates take over his former college. The college becomes a new prison, Eugene becomes warden and then an inmate. These events occur mostly because of serendipity, or by hocus pocus.
Comment: The usual themes of Vonnegut’s earlier works all come together in this oddly unengaging non-linear narrative. Through Eugene’s ponderings and wanderings, the Vietnam war, class, prejudice, sexuality, freedom and social exclusion are all covered. This is really Vonnegut speaking in this fictional autobiography (again, Vonnegut is editing the notes and writings from Eugene for this text). Vonnegut tries to make it interesting by using some familiar meta elements, such as talking to the reader, repetition of phrases, and the adding of coughing noises, as Eugene has tuberculosis as he writes. Perhaps Vonnegut was sensing his own mortality.
Synopsis: From the outset, it appears that this is the story of a timequake, when the universe decides to have a moment and sends everyone back in time 10 years. Forcing everyone to relive their lives again but having no control over the actions until the moment time catches up with itself in 2001. In reality, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical polemic. There is no plot, other than Vonnegut describing events leading up to, and resulting from, a celebration that features his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout. Apart from that, there’s nothing to describe. He alludes to many of his other novels and the first draft of this book, which appears to have more of a plot.
Comment: While this is as sharp and black as most of Vonnegut’s books, it lacks any coherence. As there’s no true plot, it is much harder to engage with it than any of this previous novels. There is no thread to follow as such, other than Vonnegut’s own life. The fun is to spot the themes and smile knowingly when he mentions is previous works in particular contexts. His playful language and running gags are a joy as ever. In lesser hands, this would have been a terrible book. Obviously, free will is the key theme, as everyone must live 10 years again, and then deal with their actions as the first moment of free will kicks in. People are forced to watch their bad choices again, which is as black as it gets! This is an intriguing idea, but I wish it had been carried though with an actual narrative or characters you’d cared for. I think that this is a lost opportunity for another masterpiece.
As a body of work, these 14 novels are remarkable in their consistency of thought and voice. The themes of social injustice and the futility of human exist resonate strongly with me, which is an odd dichotomy. Life is pointless, Homo sapiens are stupid (or at least the male half of the species), and we don’t have the free will and liberties that we think we do, but while we’re at it, can we all be nice and fair to each other and stop having wars?
While I love the reoccurring characters, themes, gags and phraseology, I feel that towards the end of his career, the fictional autobiography trope becomes a bit tired. The brilliance of Cat’s Cradle shows that a decent narrative works well for the messages Vonnegut has.
His reputation is deserved, of course, and I shall be returning to most of these books again, later in life. And again.
So it goes.
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
- Cat’s Cradle (1963)
- Player Piano (1952)
- The Sirens of Titan (1959)
- Bluebeard (1987)
- Mother Night (1961)
- Breakfast of Champions (1973)
- Timequake (1997)
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
- Deadeye Dick (1982)
- Slapstick (1976)
- Jailbird (1979)
- Hocus Pocus (1990)
- Galápagos (1985)
Image credit By WNET-TV/ PBS – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38530410