Marc Leeds is the author of the indispensable new book, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, a must-have for any fan of Kurt Vonnegut and his books. Leeds, co-founder and founding president of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, as well as a founding board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, picks 10 essential Vonnegut books.
A member of the Greatest Generation, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. held increasing sway during the second half of the twentieth century as a hero of the 1960s counter-culture. These youthful among baby-boomers were politically leftist, pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, and developing a green world ethic resulting in such demonstrations as Earth Day.
As evidenced by the atomic bomb, the Greatest Generation gave rise to technology’s looming envelopment, the persistent existential crisis. The constant errors of leadership across the world were now matches in a fireworks factory. At any moment, the entire world could blow.
Kurt can’t explain the inexplicable, but he does illustrate the Rube Goldberg machines we invent to hold society together. Technology, religion, politics, the failing environment, our biological and cultural ancestries and the traps we leave for the next generation, all inhabit Vonnegut’s vortex.
1. Player Piano
Vonnegut’s vision of an America restructured by industrial technocrats whose robotics in the workplace result in a devaluing of human participation. Vonnegut poses the question of human purpose in the face of a world commercially and institutionally driven to automate life.
This is Vonnegut’s first novel. It is unlike most of his other novels in which the nature of authorship and/or narrative flow has been characterized as Vonnegutian. This is his most straight-ahead narrative, but the pithy societal observations and questions one comes to expect from Vonnegut are all here.
2. The Sirens of Titan
The premise of the novel is that all of human history has been one big Rube Goldberg invention by the Tralfamadorians for the single purpose of getting a spare part to their stranded but intrepid intergalactic messenger, Salo. It takes nearly all of human history to do so.
Beyond that grossly inadequate summary, Sirens is the birthplace for key Vonnegutian concepts that reappear in later novels. It is here we first learn of Tralfamadore, as well as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (where otherwise contradictory viewpoints are all truthful), and the untoward influences of organized religion that has too often been wielded with vengeance. It is also a continuation of Vonnegut’s literary and personal struggle with identity and the capriciousness of wealth and desire.
3. Mother Night
The closest Vonnegut gets to “Nazi monkey business” until letting go in Slaughterhouse-Five. Framed as Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s memoirs requested by Israeli war crimes investigators, he is an American by birth, a German playwright by occupation, an American spy and, by necessity, a member of the Nazi party tasked with badmouthing the Allied forces through English language broadcasts.
Mother Night is a study of the stateless schizophrenic Howard Campbell’s hyphenated sense of self, trapped by the peculiarities of heredity and environment that mitigate any attempt to produce a satisfying self-image.
Not so oddly, Vonnegut was a German American scout captured at the Battle of the Bulge, imprisoned by those he could envision as distant cousins, misunderstood by his captors because he spoke German and had an obviously shared heritage, before being firebombed in his ancestors’ homeland by his own countrymen (and its ally, England). It is no wonder that Vonnegut begins with the moral of the novel, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
4. Cat's Cradle
Famed literary critic Leslie A. Fiedler once said that every self-respecting hippie had on a coffee table their stash and three books: the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and Cat’s Cradle.
The text follows an intertwining double plot. John/Jonah, the narrator, sets out to write the very human stories of the atomic bomb’s inventors and their families as they remember the day Hiroshima was incinerated. Wrapped within this journalist’s quest is the unmasking of government and religion as grand schemes to prod people who otherwise have no motivation.
The unifying element to this struggle between personal quest and the bald-faced pretense of religion (Bokononism) is the question of unbridled technological progress that may destroy the planet--as ice-nine does at the close of the novel.
5. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
“Money is a central character” in this tale. Specifically, the unequal distribution of money. Eliot Rosewater, president of the Rosewater Foundation, breaks with the notion of distant charity by leaving his loving Sylvia in New York to provide financial and spiritual ministry to the people back in his ancestral hometown, Rosewater, Indiana.
Opposed to Eliot’s philosophical and financial concerns is his father, Senator Lister Ames Rosewater, whose bombastic speeches parallel the rise and fall of American power with the rise and fall of Rome, preceding right wing talking points developed in the 1980s.
While Eliot ceaselessly spreads his love, Sylvia, an otherwise good soul with her own philanthropic streak, breaks down and leaves Eliot. Her diagnosis: samaritrophia. “Hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself.”
The text also introduces Kilgore Trout and Vonnegut’s appreciation for the possibilities of telling truth through literature, particularly science fiction.
The Dresden novel Vonnegut tried to write for more than twenty years, since rising from his underground meat locker into a splintered, melted, and massacred Dresden. He was twenty-two.
Most frequently noted for its post-modern narrative structure, frequently discussed as representative of thinking patterns by PTSD sufferers, Vonnegut returns to Tralfamadore, Tralfamadorian philosophy about time and the “structured moment,” and one’s inability to get out of their own way.
Iconic and frequently the subject of school book-banning activities, Slaughterhouse-Five solidified Vonnegut’s reputation as a writer, becoming fully embraced by the rebellious counter-culture at the height of the Vietnam War.
7. Breakfast of Champions
If Slaughterhouse-Five represents the fractured psyche of those suffering PTSD, then Breakfast chronicles how close one can get to the edge of suicide. Vonnegut squares off with himself, alternately examining that secret part of him which fears insanity and his more public character as a writer presenting novel explanations of our collective state of being. As he situates the text at the outset, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast…. One of them was a science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout…. The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.”
Vonnegut’s Watergate novel, rooted in the travesties of Sacco and Vanzetti as well as the early factory union movement opposed by private armies of strikebreakers, illustrating that our willful ignorance of historical truth consigns us to continued victimization. Ignoring objective truth in the name of institutional salvation opens the way for establishment schizophrenia. As a result, people live by the designs of conspirators (including the courts and corporatism) and participate in the conspiracy of design by clinging to and perpetuating indoctrinated myths. Vonnegut asserts we have already reached this institutional schizophrenia. What we are missing is the common decency and respect of The Sermon on the Mount.
The memoir of “minimal painter” Rabo Karabekian, admittedly saved by wonderful women he credits with bringing him back to life, Lazarus-like. The novel’s arc culminates in unveiling Karabekian’s masterpiece, a triptych entitled “Now It’s the Women’s Turn.” It is the repainted canvas of his “Windsor Blue Number Seventeen,” what was a single band of color representing one’s individual awareness. Product suicide destroys the abstract masterpiece when the Sateen Dura-Luxe paint peels away while stored in a basement facility.
The retrieved blank canvas becomes the scene Vonnegut describes elsewhere of his POW release by his German captors: over five thousand figures, some no larger than a cigarette, realistically rendered and representing all the nationalities in the war. Perhaps in reference to his own past “single-band” paintings, Rabo paints himself into the scene. With his back to the viewer, his image is divided by the space between two canvases. Rather than a single band of luminescent color representing one’s essential awareness, Rabo’s single band of emptiness (the space between the canvases) takes the place of his spine.
10. A Man Without a Country
Vonnegut’s manifesto, providing nuggets of wisdom and wonder about life’s woeful ironies. This is Vonnegut shorthand, his voice, exploring human values and beliefs. Often using President George W. Bush, dunce-like, as an exemplar of those relying on misinformation or misperceptions presented as generally accepted principles, Vonnegut paints Bush’s falsehoods as nothing more than guesses, myths (including religious theologies), and poorly conceived stereotypes.
Abhorring willful ignorance and unquestioning belief in myths that too often make enemies of otherwise benign souls, Vonnegut addresses our personal animi, our wars, and our impending planetary destruction from climate change. He summarizes the human situation coming from the dangers inherent in herding under the advice of politicians and religious leaders whose guesses and teachings are too often based on something other than fact or foresight.