Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WE RANK 'EM: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut


I understand that people go both ways on Kurt Vonnegut. There are groups of people who loathe him, and think he was a talentless hack. They think he was Kilgore Trout, which Vonnegut himself may have agreed with. For me, however, Vonnegut is unparalleled, because he wrote simply, but profoundly. It is far easier to tackle profundity with a whole lot of words, but as a writer myself, I am forced to admit that I will probably never write anything as poetic, moving, and elegant as "So it goes."

I will now attempt to rank the 14 novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Watch:

"Slapstick" by Kurt Vonnegut
14. Slapstick (1976)
I have to be honest, I don't remember very much of Vonnegut's explicitly post-apocalyptic novel, except that it has a lot to do with his relationship with his own sister, who died many years earlier. When Vonnegut is at his best, his breezy style plays in opposition to the profound truths or moral lessons he communicates in that style. At worst, the result is entertaining, but slight, and that's how Slapstick feels. This is the first novel where he bills himself as "Kurt Vonnegut," dropping the "Jr."

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" by Kurt Vonnegut
13. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
Vonnegut's ode to the volunteer firefighter, the plot of this novel is almost identical to the first and last thirds of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, of all things.

"Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut. Also published under the title "Utopia 14"
12. Player Piano (1952)
Vonnegut's first novel is perhaps not the straight-ahead sci-fi novel it is sometimes characterized as, but it does rely on a number of familiar sci-fi tropes, among them future society, mechanization, and dystopia. The plight of man against machine is one that is close to my heart.

"Deadeye Dick" by Kurt Vonnegut
11. Deadeye Dick (1982)
Tragedy is compounded upon tragedy in this novel, where a boy fires a bullet into the air, only to have it come down blocks away, killing a pregnant woman and her unborn baby. Not much of a narrative here, but lots of ideas, one of which is that the boy's father was a close friend of Adolf Hitler's when they were both aspiring painters in Germany in the 1920s, and now has to reconcile how he felt about the guy then, and...after.

10. Galapagos (1985)
Galapagos is set one million years in the future, narrated by a ghost who died in 1985, and is looking back across 1,000,000 years of human evolution. I'm not sure how it squares with Vonnegut's professed embrace of intelligent design before he died, but I don't think Galapagos wants you to take anything in it too seriously except this: your brain is too big, and will get you in trouble.

9. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
This is the most straightforward sci-fi novel in Vonnegut's canon, with intergalactic travel, alien meddling in human history, interplanetary war and travel, and other trappings of space opera. Vonnegut's second novel, and written several years after Player Piano, sees the writing take a huge step forward, making his next novel, Mother Night, a clear next step in his stylistic evolution. Fun fact: first mention of Tralfamador, which will gain importance in Slaughterhouse-Five.

8. Jailbird (1979)
As I read it, I was consistently amazed by how much I was enjoying this book. Vonnegut's caricature of the multi-everything corporation undoubtedly seems less far-fetched these days than it did in 1979, and in a lovely bit of cosmic tomfoolery that I assume Vonnegut would have approved of, his main character's surname is Starbuck, which today graces every street corner, shopping mall, or both in America thanks to the ubiquity of just such a corporation.

7. Bluebeard (1987)
Don't feel bad if you've heard the names Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns but not Rabo Karabekian. In Vonnegut's book (mostly) about art, Karabekian was a talented and briefly successful contemporary of Pollock's who had the misfortune of using house paint that ultimately peeled off of all of his abstract canvases, leaving them all worthless. This book contains one of my favorite-ever Vonnegut moments, where Karabekian explains that he turned to abstraction because drawing realistically was too easy.

6. Hocus Pocus (1990)
Extensive reference is made to Madame Bovary at a key moment in this book, but I would gladly re-read Hocus Pocus daily before enduring Madame Bovary again. I'm sure Vonnegut would have thought me to be quite pedestrian. So it goes.

The main character's name is an homage to Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who, Vonnegut reminds us several times, said this, which is important: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

5. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Those that ravage Vonnegut's writing probably do so most often by invoking Breakfast of Champions, which provides the reader with the size of each male character's penis, and pencil sketches of things like buttholes. But this book was written by an artist and a human being in crisis, and to me it is fascinating. There is a metafictional section at the end that I find to be one of the more lucid expressions of an author's relationship to his/her own work, and the crises of confidence that must be endured to get to the final period and send it out the door.

4. Timequake (1997)
Vonnegut was well known for his essays and public addresses, many of which were included in collections like Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death (only crucifixion, it would seem) and which are wonderful, funny, and endlessly entertaining. Timequake is Vonnegut's final novel, and it's clear that he just didn't have the patience to slog through writing a coherent book, so what he wound up doing was taking pieces of an unfinished novel, commentary on writing it, and random observations, more-or-less shuffling them, and slapping them between two covers. The result is engaging, funny, though-provoking, and touching. A fitting and wonderful swan song.

3. Mother Night (1961)
I would argue that this is the novel when Kurt Vonnegut became Kurt Vonnegut. If you read Sirens of Titan and then Cat's Cradle, you may be forgiven for not immediately thinking they were written by the same author. This is the novel where Vonnegut fully found his voice, and where he wrote, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

You can take that to the bank, if you'd like.

2. Cat's Cradle (1963)
I have never dog-eared a book to mark pages or quotations I'd like to remember as frequently as I did Cat's Cradle. This book features one of Vonnegut's coolest and most popularly enduring sci-fi concepts (ice-9), as well as his made-up religion Bokononism, which seems to exist mainly in the form of pleasant, pithy witticisms and observations. Sadly, the religion's followers seem to have replaced sex with the rubbing together of the soles of their feet, but what are you going to do? The world's going to end anyway, right?

1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Not really a surprise to find this at #1, right?

If you have not read this book, what can I say? You should. You may hate it, or you may want to get portions of it tattooed on your body. So there is that.