Mother Night

By Kurt Vonnegut

Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is one of the most wanted, treasonous war criminals from WWII. As a U.S. writer in Germany, Campbell made his living writing plays that made small syndication and novels that didn’t make it past drafts until the Nazis come to power. Campbell became one of the most prominent propagandists for the Nazi party with broadcasts heard around the world, and for that he is a wanted man. Or is he? Campbell’s version of the story relates a tale in which he only took on this role as a spy who conveyed secret messages to U.S. forces by changes in tone, emphasis and other verbal cues. The problem is that nobody knows the man who recruited him to do his spy work. At war’s end, he takes refuge in New York hoping both to lose himself and find himself among the masses. Having lost his wife, his passion and his reputation to the war, he tries desperately to reconnect with something, anything that will bring him meaning. As he grows a small network of personal connections, his truth becomes entangled in a snarl of complicated cover-ups which could ultimately lead to his capture and persecution.

“Mother Night” by Kurt Vonnegut is the story of a man who tells tales for a living, both in his presumed proper career as well as his undercover career. The layers of story and meaning intertwine and overlap to the point that truth and fiction become indistinguishable, revealing every aspect of the story to be fiction in one way or another. In this way, multiple and conflicting truths are able to coexist without needing to be reconciled. Every character and the backstory to go along with them has pieces of stories that are true and pieces of stories that are blatant lies, which begs several questions: when is it helpful and when is it harmful to believe the lie despite knowing the truth? What is the cost of living a constant deception? Is it ever possible to live in the truth when there are so many different truths? Perhaps the only way to maintain sanity and integrity in such a convoluted mess is to remain true to your own self and your own story, as Campbell does. Written with classic Vonnegut wit, “Mother Night” is told with the sting, hilarity, and incisive point-making of his best satire.

I enjoyed this story. In some of his works, I feel Vonnegut writes with excessive satire to the detriment of his content, but I felt this book had an appropriate and highly entertaining level of satire. The story jumps around a lot and can be difficult to keep track of if you don’t pay attention while reading, so it does require some degree of focus. Overall, I would say this is one of the better novels from Vonnegut. Quick and easy to read, worth the time it takes.

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