Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

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. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.

While reading the AV Club’s recent review of the movie adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slapstick, someone in the comments noted that it was difficult to make good movies from Vonnegut’s stories because his themes tend to be so dark that, without his bleakly humorous narrative voice to leaven them, his stories are almost unbearably depressing. I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind while reading Mother Night; less funny than Cat’s Cradle and less hopeful than Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night would be a real wrist-slitter without Vonnegut’s tone.

The main character is Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American spy who disguised himself by acting as a Nazi broadcaster and propagandist during World War II. The novel opens as he is dictating his life story. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because a lot of its power comes from the way it plays with its main theme, identity. It’s all right there in the quote at the start of this review: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

That’s a fair summation of the entire book, probably even moreso than the plot description. Virtually every character given significant word count is something besides what they appear to be—or are they? When Campbell is preparing to leave Germany after the war, he tells his German father-in-law goodbye, to which his father-in-law replies that he’d hoped, ever since the marriage, that Howard would turn out to be a spy, but then he recants:

'And do you know why I don't care now if you were a spy or not?' he said. 'You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would go on talking calmly, just as we're talking now. I would let you wander off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?' he said.

'No,' I said.

'Because you could nev­er have served the enemy as well as you served us,' he said. 'I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler — but from you.' He took my hand. 'You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.'

The central question of this passage, and the whole book, isn’t exactly subtle, but it is powerful: is it significant what you actually are, if that doesn’t match up with what your actions, and, more importantly, is such a disconnect even possible? For Campbell, the dilemma is even worse, since, during his years of service, he never learned what information he was transmitting to America in his broadcasts—was the information he gave to the good buys as useful as the encouragement he gave to the bad?

I doubt Vonnegut would like my usage of the good/bad dichotomy though—aside from identity, a lot of the book deals with the difference between a person as an individual and a person as part of a whole: Vonnegut’s Nazis are as human and likable as his Americans, maybe moreso. The White Supremacists who eventually become Campbell’s protectors are friendlier and kinder to him than most of his compatriots throughout the war. Ultimately, Campbell even chooses to remain with friends who’ve betrayed him, in a nice synthesis of the two major themes—they are his friends because of what they’ve done, not because of what they are.

Of course, when it’s all said and done, there’s nothing particularly wonderful about Campbell’s decision to stick with friends he knows were planning to betray him, or, really, any of his other choices throughout the novel. They seem to follow the ethos of the man making them: they are nothing more than a way to mark time until he gets what he deserves, not for what he is, but for what he has shown himself to be.


Christopher said...

Good review; intriguing book. You should read The Man in the High Castle next.

Josh said...

Good review indeed! One of my favorites. I read it while working at a particularly terrible job and Vonnegut's dark humor was all the more enjoyable.