by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Mother Night is a dark comedy written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and published by Fawcett Publications in February of 1962. The novel precedes what is perhaps Vonnegut’s most well-known work, Slaughterhouse Five, by about 7 years and shares some similarities of theme and tone with that work. The book is both darkly amusing and painfully relevant, with a wealth of morals that are as true today as they were over fifty years ago. As Vonnegut warns us at the outset, we are what we pretend to be, so we must be wary of what we pretend to be.
My full written and video review of this novel can be found below.
Plot & Themes: 9/10
“And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”
The main plot line follows the final confessions of a man named Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American that spent his entire life growing up in Germany and who was enjoying mild fame as a playwright/writer when the second world war broke out. He is then approached and enlisted by an American agent to serve as a spy for the allies through posing as the voice of Nazi radio propaganda. Campbell does his job only too well but finds out when the war is over that only three people knew he was serving as a spy, none of whom are willing to step forth and claim him. Thus, he is thrust into a world of people who believe that he truly meant every hateful word he ever said. The confessions that he writes, with Vonnegut serving as his editor of sorts, are from an Israeli prison as he awaits execution. The plot itself, however, serves as a vehicle to examine the many morals Campbell comes to understand as he bumbles through a world deadest on believing he truly was not only the great voice of Nazi propaganda, but that he believed anything of what he said. Beyond the main moral of ‘be careful of who you pretend to be’, there are also examinations of how one comes to such radical beliefs and the altered machinations of the mind that make such hatred possible, as well as the justifications of hate without reservation. While ultimately the plot is satirical in almost every turn, the moral examinations that accompany these moments are what make the book so incredibly compelling.
“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”
The characters in this work, beyond a set few, could better be labeled caricatures with comically extreme personality features that set the satirical tone of the novel. Beyond Campbell himself, almost everyone has some extreme idiosyncrasy that aids in turning their narrative into a moral at some point. The characters are wildly entertaining, and their descriptions will have many readers snickering even as they converse about things that would normally turn the stomach. Furthermore, Vonnegut rendering many of the characters harmless through his satirical depictions also enables the reader to enjoy reading about characters that they would normally despise while also fully engaging in and appreciating the moral that ultimately accompanies their story. While readers will never adore the motley crew in Mother Night the way they might for something like Harry Potter, they will enjoy learning from then and have a few good laughs at their expense.
Pacing & Narrative Style: 8/10
“You hate America, don’t you?’
That would be as silly as loving it,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.”
This novel is a remarkably quick read. Even for casual readers, this book could likely be devoured in a weekend rather easily. The Vintage edition from 1988 that was read for this review was 175 pages and most chapters are around two (2) pages long. There is also a nice balance between narrative and dialogue that makes the short chapters move even faster. In terms of the narrative style, Vonnegut is a world-renowned master of dark satire and metafiction, both of which he relies on heavily in this novel. The metafiction allows him a certain distance in his narrator while also giving him an element of omniscience that makes for a unique writing perspective. He also blends cutting satirical remarks with powerful social and moral commentary so well that one often struggles with whether they should laugh or cry, only to end up doing both. This is a fast paced read that is beautifully written, though for some the incredibly short chapters can give it a bit of a choppy feel.
The Ending: 9/10
“…this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”
Unlike many novels where the ending can ultimately make or break the overriding plot line, this book delivers much more in its moral commentary throughout the story such that the ending, while still relevant and fitting, bears far less weight in the overall narrative. The conclusion brings the story full circle and ends in perhaps the only way that it could have, echoing in large part the sentiment of the opening statement by Vonnegut: we are what we pretend to be. Whatever Howard Campbell believed of himself, in many ways, becomes irrelevant through the various misadventures and encounters of the book. It also shows that guilt or innocence are complex matters that can be understood on many levels. The conclusion of the story fit perfectly with the overall narrative and made for a well-rounded work.
Final Verdict: 9/10
“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting…but no good reason to ever hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive….it’s that part of an imbecile that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”
Mother Night is an excellent novel with morals that are still of social relevance fifty years after it was written. While framed in the era of WWII, one rife with racism and hatred, this story focuses on some of the mindsets that arose from it, as well as the lies that men often tell themselves. In one of the more poignant moments Vonnegut likens these men to a gear with teeth that have been intentionally removed such that truths basic to even a young child escape them. It is not that their minds are completely devoid of function, but that they have purposefully removed some concepts so that the narrative defining the world they choose to believe makes sense. This is a message germane to a world where human beings continue to struggle grasping the perspective of their fellows. This novel is highly recommended to readers who enjoy a highly intelligent, fast-paced, and socially relevant dark satire.