Mother Night1As you may or may not be aware, I’ve recently decided to give myself a summer reading list.  My goal is simple: I want to be able to say by the end of August that I’ve read all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.  True, I could still say it without doing any of the actually reading, but my court appointed psychiatrist says I need to have at least one thing to brag about that is true.  On a side note: I was not a writer on the television show “Arrested Development,” nor do I own an invisibility cloak, or have a court appointed psychiatrist.  Essentially, I crossed out the names of the few novels I’d already read from a Vonnegut bibliography and set out to read what remained.  See.

First up is Mother Night.  As I wrote in my initial post about this project, I found a copy left out in the foyer of my apartment building while I was between books and it was the inspiration for my summer reading endeavor.  The hero (if you’d call him that) of the novel is Howard Campbell Jr. (Vonnegut’s bit of a self-deprecating nod, since he’s technically Kurt Vonnegut Jr.).  Campbell narrates the novel as a memoir he’s writing while awaiting to be tried as a Nazi war criminal in an Israeli prison.  Born in America, Campbell grows up in pre-war Germany, where he becomes a somewhat prominent playwright and marries a beautiful German actress (who stars in his romantic plays).  Campbell rises to notoriety (or is it infamy) by spending World War II on the German side as a part of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine.  He hosted a short wave radio program aimed at convincing Americans to side with the Nazis.  Campbell claims that he was actually an American agent recruited before the war and acting on behalf of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, but is unable to prove it. The story jumps from Campbell in prison, to before and just after the war, and early 60’s America—where he does his best to escape capture by Nazis hunters and recognition by White Supremacists.

I think I always wanted to read Mother Night not so much because of the film adaptation staring Nick Nolte, but because of the trailer, which I saw as a kid.  I never got around to seeing the movie, which I hear is God-awful, but the plot always intrigued me.  The book itself is actually pretty good.  The most striking aspect is that doesn’t seem like a typical Vonnegut novel.  There are no sci-fi elements or a lot of comedic moments (though it is probably the most lighthearted novel about Nazis I’ve ever read).  Timing wise, I started the book on the commute to work on Monday and finished it on the way home that Thursday.  I really enjoyed reading this and feel it’s a good start to the project.

It’s pretty obvious that this is novel about identity.  Vonnegut, who addresses the reader at the beginning of the book as an “editor” of Campbell’s memoir, states that the moral of the story is “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  The reader spends the entire story wondering if Campbell really was a spy working for the Allies or if he’s lying. And if it really matters.  Do the lies we tell reveal (on some level) who we really are? Throw in the moral quagmire of helping evil in order to gain a position inside to help covertly fight it and you have a book that forces you to examine your own ethical character.  Maybe that’s the whole point.

Note: I was also able to polish off Sirens of Titan over the holiday weekend.  So expect a post reviewing it in the next couple days.

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