Saturday, 22 July 2017

“Daring challenge” not daring: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

On its dustcover, Mother Night is described as a “daring challenge to our moral sense.” Let’s dispense with this right away; Mother Night is neither daring, challenging or in any way an interrogation of our moral sense. It could have been, but it isn’t. It’s a caper story dressed up in moth-eaten literary regalia, and as a consequence is worse than the middlebrow novel it should have been.

Vonnegut always struck me as a middlebrow writer. His literary standing puzzled me even as a teen, when I read a vastly overrated Slaughterhouse-Five. Now, decades later, after reading his take on Nazi war criminals, his reputation as one of America’s best downright disturbs me. How did a guy who wrote half decent novels become “one of the best living American writers? It just goes to show what a bit of quirk and a whole lot of nerve can accomplish.

Mother Night holds out a lot of promise to its readers. The concept is brilliant: what if an American pretending to be a Nazi during WWII couldn’t prove he was a spy when the war ended? There’s so much scope for drama there that I could hardly wait to begin reading. And then you throw in the question of personal cost: what happens to a man when he pretends to be something – a Nazi – when he isn’t? Even better. Now we have a real story. A man recruited by the Americans to spy on the Nazis from within – pretending to be a fire and brimstone radio broadcaster railing against the Jews and praising the Aryan nation and Hitler – now grappling with personal guilt and the risk of having to face a war crimes tribunal. This has to be some novel, right?

But it’s not. Instead, we get Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a vacuous fop who wrote a handful of popular plays in German, lived the highlife in Nazi society with his movie star wife, and in the aftermath of the war leads a life barely troubled by what he’d become in order to fool the German high command. There’s hope, when Vonnegut throws in some American white supremacists who perceive Howard as a true American hero for his Nazi broadcasts. Finally, thinks the reader, the daring challenge to our moral sense is about to emerge. Alas, it does not. What we get is more of the same; teen fiction cardboard cutouts circling each other around the drainpipe.

In his eight rules for writing short stories, Vonnegut’s sixth is: Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of. Sadistic he is; Campbell faces several shockers, none of which strike me as authentic in the story’s terms, and none of which appear to stir anything remotely revelatory in our narrator’s character. By the end, it’s as though Vonnegut has tired of his hero as much as the reader, and ends it all with a fake whimper.

Mother Night is not a terrible book, but it’s not a very good one either. There are dozens of forgotten American novelists from the 1950s and 60s worth reading before Vonnegut, and I suggest you seek them out before cracking this one open. 

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