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Kurt's third novel
on December 8, 2013
What happened in 1961? Well, there was the debacle at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall and resumed atmospheric nuclear testing. And Kurt Vonnegut published MOTHER NIGHT, a novel that explores the role of insanity in war. 1961 was also the year that Joseph Heller, a World War II veteran like Kurt, published CATCH-22, which is a much stronger anti-war novel. Regardless, MOTHER NIGHT certainly did raise issues about war and evil and probably induced many young minds to begin questioning the assumptions of the Cold War. For this, a tip-o-the-hat to Vonnegut.
As the 191st person to review this novel on Amazon.com, I will withhold a plot summation, which is surely redundant. But I will point out that Howard W. Campbell, Jr., this novel's protagonist, is a clear thinker and stick character who never really becomes credible. Here, I say clear thinker because Vonnegut allows Campbell to say such things as:
o "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too."
o "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 reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate."
o "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."
At the same time, Campbell, in interaction with other characters, is what Vonnegut probably considered comically taciturn. In the chapter "Chemicals", for example, Campbell has a conversation with a young police officer. In succession, the remarks he makes in this conversation are: What is?... I don't know... Very interesting... Very possible... I never thought of that before... All right...
For me, the problem with this approach is this: Campbell is either lecturing or he's evasive. As a result, there are few (if any) small moments that serve unexpectedly to enlighten character. This makes MOTHER NIGHT both slightly preachy and under-imagined.
In CATCH-22, Yossarian's strange refrain is: "Where are the Snowdens of yesterday?" I mention this since this refrain, unexplained through most of the book, is ultimately placed within a gruesome wartime moment. Then, Yossarian morphs from stick figure to credible character and the Heller book, mostly comic to that point, takes on heft. IMO, Vonnegut offers nothing comparable to Campbell or any other character in MOTHER NIGHT.
Vonnegut is on the side of the angels. And he is a disciplined writer. But his depressed protagonist is lonely, self-loathing, and indifferent-to-life and Vonnegut stops layering his text and themes once he establishes that even evil people have humanity. Meh.