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Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Here’s a heavyweight literary master at the top of his game, but so light on his feet he can switch registers from slapstick to blackest satire in one deft sentence. Here’s an anti-war masterpiece and a first-rate piece of science fiction which also packs a serious emotional punch. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s response to his experiences as a prisoner– of– war in Germany, where he witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied forces. It took Vonnegut years to put this experience into words, but the words he chose and the story he told have become one of the most famous in the English language: powerful and resonant of his unique world – view – weary but bursting with artistic energy, pessimistic but buoyant, playful and wise.

 

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

This is one of Vonnegut’s most accessible novels, mainly as its narrative structure is straightforward with less in the way of time – quakes or loops, or erratic digressions and asides. The narrator, John, is writing a book called ‘The Day the World Ended’ and along the way he meets the family of an atomic scientist and the founder of a new religion, briefly becomes president-dictator of a Caribbean island and brings about a second ice-age and the ending of the world. See? Pretty straightforward.

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

One of Vonnegut’s most iconic and influential novels, 1973’s Breakfast of Champions is a postmodern classic satire that feels as relevant today as it did upon release. Focusing on science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout, one of Vonnegut’s most well-known creations, and unstable businessman Dwayne Hoover – who takes Trout’s fiction as the gospel truth and whose conviction is particularly prescient of today’s post-truth America, Breakfast of Champions explores free will and what it means to be human and not a machine.

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

A comic and tender novel, with free will as the central theme. The Sirens of Titan is not Vonnegut’s most famous book but certainly one of his best. Somewhere between Earth and Mars, Winston Niles Rumfoord (along with his dog Kazak) accidentally flies his spaceship into a ‘chrono-synclastic infundibulum’. Converted into pure energy, he only materialises when his waveforms intercept Earth or some other planet. As a result, he only gets home to Rhode Island once every fifty-nine days and then only for an hour. Another effect of this phenomenon is that he now knows everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will happen. For example, he knows that on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, there is an alien from the planet Tralfamadore who has been waiting 200,000 years for a spare part for his grounded spacecraft. It is hard to believe that when this book was published, man was still ten years from setting foot on the moon. An extraordinary feat of imagination.

 

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965)

‘Being charitable is the experiment of someone who is far from normal’ says Eliot Rosewater, a drunk in possession of a large fortune who decides to redistribute to the people of Rosewater. However, the people of Rosewater barely deserve it, and tend to resent Eliot, who arrives in their failing Midwestern town to dispense his money as well as unwanted help and advice. Read this book to enjoy Vonnegut’s excellent company, rather than a rip-roaring plot, and absorb his sharp observations about the follies of capitalism.

 

Jailbird (1979)

Vonnegut’s ‘Watergate’ novel, Jailbird may well be his most explicitly political work and also most scathing. The novel follows twenty-four hours in the life of Walter F. Starbuck – a man who has always been at the wrong place at the wrong time – upon his release from prison, where he’d served a sentence for inadvertently being involved in the Watergate scandal. Deploying characteristic non-linear storytelling, we begin with a smoking gun and then Jailbird uncoils like a tight whodunnit mystery.

Through the memoirs of his luckless protagonist, Vonnegut casts a searing eye on the absurdity and reality of economic greed, political malfeasance and incompetence, changing cultural values and the steady erosion of empathy and compassion that follows. Hilarious and fast-paced, Jailbird is a black comedy of errors which only Vonnegut could write.

 

Slapstick or Lonesome No More (1976)

In the prologue, Vonnegut explains that Slapstick or Lonesome No More was heavily influenced by the death of his sister, Alice. It is structured as the autobiography of the extremely ugly Doctor Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, once the President of the United States, who now lives in the ruins of the Empire State Building with his very pregnant granddaughter. The Western world has collapsed as oil has run out, and the Chinese, who have developed technology to miniaturise themselves, have inadvertently started a plague because when accidentally inhaled they prove fatal. Anti-gravity weapons have disrupted the earth’s magnetic field and gravity is as temperamental as the weather. Dedicated to Laurel and Hardy, Slapstick is a bittersweet meditation on familial love, grief and loneliness.

 

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Hocus pocus is Vonnegut’s smart expression for ‘the excrement hitting the air conditioning’. Eugene Debs Hartke is a Vietnam vet, an ex-college professor and current inmate of Tarkington State Reformatory. Vonnegut’s tale of how such a distinguished citizen ended up there, awaiting trial (and probable death from Tuberculosis), is a brilliantly absurd one and he narrates his sorry story on scraps of paper he finds about the place. Killer of men, romancer of women, compulsive list-maker, Eugene is just one more victim of the world’s hocus pocus.

 

Mother Night (1961)

Mother Night is a remarkable piece of meta-fiction in which Vonnegut casts himself as the editor of a manuscript he has received from one Howard W. Campbell Jr. Although one of Vonnegut’s less well-known novels, the protagonist and ostensible author of the manuscript, Campbell, may be familiar to attentive readers from his brief appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five. Recounting his time during 1930s Germany, Campbell, although apolitical, nonetheless joined the Nazi party and worked his way up to become the radio voice of Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda. At the same time, Campbell was passing coded messages in his radio programme to the U.S. War Department.

The moral problem that haunts Campbell is whether he can really act in the service of good while pretending to serve evil. Here Vonnegut masterfully portrays the moral world to be messy and fraught with blurred lines and shades of grey.

 

Armageddon in Retrospect (2008)

Published posthumously, Armageddon in Retrospect begins with an outstanding introduction by Kurt’s son Mark and contains an exuberantly imaginative and heartfelt speech, original artwork by Kurt and a series of deeply critical and compassionate essays and stories – a marvellous mixture. Most of the stories compiled herein are about war, and Dresden is at the fore. Has the ignominious reality of war and its aftermath – the hunger, the disposal of bodies, the secrets soldiers live with, the petty theft and looting, the people left behind and the chaos that follows – ever been as well-observed? To read these stories is to see Vonnegut grappling with how to represent war and how to represent Dresden, which eventually culminated in Slaughterhouse-Five. There is, as always, Vonnegut’s trademark humour. His piercing gaze found the crack to let a little bit of light (and levity) in.

 

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2014)

Though there is much that is autobiographical in his fiction, this marvellous collection of letters is the closest you’ll get to the story of Kurt Vonnegut in his own words. It includes the letter a twenty-two-year-old Kurt wrote home on his release from a German POW camp; it includes the indignant protest to a school board that had his books burned; letters to publishers; letters about his family and his profession (‘necessarily a bizarre and risky enterprise’), letters of friendship and praise to fellow authors, and complex, loving letters to his children. It’s one for the fans, but if you aren’t a fan, what’s wrong with you?

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