One of my greatest discoveries since blogging about books has been the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut. Up until now, I’ve only read three of his novels. Both his short stories and his novels brilliantly contain his sometimes wicked, sometimes playful wit. I’m fascinated with Vonnegut’s ability to comment and observe society with a zany story about aliens or a story about a down-to-earth couple buying a new house. He can put to wonderful use both outlandishness and subtlety.
I’ve now read a fourth Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, and for me it continues to prove his genius. I would consider this novel to be a little more in the subtle category than the other three that I’ve read.
Howard J. Campbell, Jr. is American-born but grows up in Germany prior to World War II. Through circumstances not completely in his control, he becomes a spy for the Americans during the war. Like any good spy, he pretends he is the enemy. For Howard’s disguise, he becomes a radio personality spouting Nazi propaganda. After the war, he lives in relative seclusion in the United States until he begins to discover that several groups of people are interested in him. Some consider him a hero and others a war criminal. Apparently, Campbell disguised himself a little too well.
I loved Vonnegut’s idea of pretending. One of my favorite passages reveals Campbell’s insight into his spy activities:
I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but 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. So many people wanted to believe me!
I’m still thinking about the novel’s ending. I understand Campbell’s decision in contrast to all of the absurdity around him; however, I’m not sure I really like it. Maybe I’m not suppose to.