“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Introduction to Mother Night)
“All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” (Timequake)
For years, I’ve taken to reading an author’s works in chronological order. The better I get as a reader, the more this practice provides benefits. Reading an author’s first novel allows one to see how the artist develops style and that elusive idea we call “voice.” First novels often clunk, but they clunk in an invaluable way for a reader, especially if that reader is also a writer.
Over the past year and some change, a friend and I have been reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s novels in chronological order. I had only read Slaughterhouse-Five, Timequake, and “Harrison Bergeron.” For some reason we focused on the novels. At some point, I need to go back and read his short fiction. I have a feeling there are some keen stories tucked away in there.
“How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?—from the covenant of peace a simile of sorrow?” That’s Poe in “Berenice.” And while he wasn’t talking about lists, for me, he could have been. I love lists. I hate them. They are practical. They are useless. And by lists here I mean “best of” not “grocery.” So, here are some Vonnegut lists (with brief comments—no spoilers!) in all their horrible beauty.
Sirens of Titan
Slaughterhouse-Five is the book and it deserves all the praise it gets. Vonnegut pulls off what he shouldn’t be able to pull off in this book. I would love to “read against the grain” and nominate another work, but I’ll go even further and say this is his best written novel, too. If you’re going to read just one of his books, this is it.
It’s been a while, but it seems to me that Mother Night is like Vonnegut’s “literary” novel. Reading chronologically, it comes after two (for the most part) sci-fi novels, and seems like an odd duck. I want to say that Slaughterhouse-Five’s style is almost a blending of the postmodern sci-fi of Sirens of Titan and the “quiet,” literary style of Mother Night. This book is also the most successful of the “jailed narrator” books, which include Jailbird and Hocus Pocus.
I don’t even know if Timequake is a novel, but I love it. Vonnegut seems to have used this novel, remains of a “failed” novel, as a piece to meditate on his life. Alternately beautiful in places and curmudgeonly in others, this book also seems to serve as a love letter to his family and friends.
The last three here will probably be listed in different orders on different days. Player Piano is important as his first novel and has some of the aforementioned clunk, but, in my opinion, in some ways, including plotting, more solid than his follow-up novel Sirens of Titan. Player Piano is surprisingly straight (for Vonnegut, that is), but still witty. His second book, Sirens of Titan, is interesting because it begins in the style of “Vonnegut.” His mature style and voice are already present by his second novel, but Sirens is still in many ways a novel of transition. Some of the problems are easily overlooked because this book is incredibly fun to read.
Bluebeard is by no means Vonnegut’s best novel, but I have to say I loved it. If we excluded Timequake—(if I could figure out exactly what genre it belongs to—sci-fi/ memoir? magical realism/autobiography?) I would have to say that it is my favorite novel after Slaughterhouse-Five. As a student of art history, I may have enjoyed this fake autobiography of an abstract painter more than most.
“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” – Kurt Vonnegut
My Not-So Favorites
Breakfast of Champions
Jailbird is Vonnegut’s only truly bad novel. It’s an internment narrative and my friend suggested that Hocus Pocus was a kind of rewrite that is more successful. It is more successful, but I don’t think it’s much better. (He also suggested that Galapagos is a kind of rewrite of Cat’s Cradle. I think he has something there—I liked both of those last two novels. In fact, on certain days, Cat’s Cradle probably makes the list above.)
Most of my friends have told me that Breakfast of Champions is their favorite Vonnegut novel. I found it extremely disappointing, especially after Slaughterhouse-Five. I felt it was a lot of Vonnegut performing “Vonnegut.” Certain devices, such as the drawings, seem forced. Admittedly, it’s a fun read in places, but by no means one of my favorites.
But, I’m the only person that I know who has that opinion, so I encourage others to read it for themselves because I may be missing something with this book.
We’ve decided to wrestle with Papa next. I’ve read all the short stories, but only a few novels.