Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

4/5 Stars.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” So begins Mother Night, the first person account of Howard J. Campbell, an American spy during World War II who inadvertently became one of Nazi Germany’s most famous propagandists.

Does it matter that Campbell’s radio shows relayed clandestine messages to the Allies if he also succeeded in converting thousands of listeners to Nazi sympathizers? Does his awareness that the rhetoric he spews is horrible absolve him of immorality or worsen it? Do the ends justify the means? What, if anything, is Campbell guilty of? Does any of it really mean anything?

These are some of the central questions at the heart of Mother Night, a postmodern morality tale. Campbell is an absurd (anti)-hero, struggling to reconcile his level of responsibility and, ultimately, his very sense of self. Who even is he?

His nonchalance and ambivalence throughout this journey are, to me, his most striking characteristics—no doubt deliberately crafted by Vonnegut to further emphasis the moral ambiguity of Campbell and his dubious life choices. Do we root for him or anticipate his demise?

I’m relatively new to Vonnegut (this is only the second one I’ve completed) and so far what I find is that I’m deeply fascinated and stimulated by so much of what he writes, yet there’s something that keeps me from being 100% engaged. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. Lines like this certainly do keep me reading more though:

“‘All people are insane,’ he said. ‘They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.'”

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

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4/5 Stars.

I have a confession to make: this is my first time ever reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel in its entirety. I started a few in high school, couldn’t make it through, and am evidently just now getting around to rectifying that as an adult.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war satire that depressed the hell out of me. (I like depressing things, so I don’t mean this in a bad way.) Billy Pilgrim‘s (and really Vonnegut’s) method of coping with the trauma of war by resigning himself to escapism and fatalism is devastating yet perfectly sensible: what better way to deal with life’s meaninglessness and one’s perceived helplessness in the face of its worst atrocities?

Of course, the irony here is that fatalism is a lie. While I had immense sympathy for Pilgrim’s reactionary adoption of this mindset, I appreciated the larger takeaway that we (humans) do indeed have a choice when it comes to war, and that it’s absurd to delude ourselves into thinking that we can or should ever let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that it causes.