The Best of Kurt Vonnegut: His Top Five Novels
Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most interesting authors of the 20th century. His unique, irreverent and self-referential style is one that most readers find very polarizing. You either love Vonnegut’s style or you hate it, there doesn’t seem to be any in-between.
For those who fall squarely into the “love it” category and are looking to read some of Vonnegut’s best works, we’ve compiled a list of our five favorite Vonnegut novels. All of his works are worth checking out, but these five novels seem to rise above the rest.
The Vonnegut “Ice 9” reference is one you’ll find scattered throughout pop culture, from the name of the computer virus in the Al Pacino movie “The Recruit” to a song on a Joe Satriani album, it has transcended the novel in which it originated.
That novel is "Cat’s Cradle," one of Vonnegut’s best and most well-known works. In the book, ice-nine is a substance invented by Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists responsible for the original atom bomb. Ice-nine is a unique structure of water that becomes solid at room temperature. The effect carries over to any water molecules that come into contact with the original.
"Cat’s Cradle" takes place on the island of San Lorenzo, currently under the rule of a dictator named “Papa” Monzano. The island is host to a unique religion called Bokonism.
“Papa” Monzano eventually uses the ice-nine molecule to commit suicide, and through a series of unhappy accidents his body is allowed to fall into the ocean, instantaneously freezing all water on earth.
If all the Vonnegut you’ve read is "Slaughterhouse Five," "Cat’s Cradle" is a great place to begin your further study of his novels.
"Deadeye Dick" is the story of Rudy Waltz, a man from Midland City, Ohio who earns the name "Deadeye Dick" when he accidentally kills a pregnant woman by randomly firing a bullet from atop his father’s home.
Rudy’s father is a bit of an eccentric himself, and most people in the town distrust him because of a former relationship he had with a destitute painter named Adolf Hitler.
Rudy’s life is colored by the events of his childhood, leading him to become an asexual neuter, with no desire for people of other gender. Eventually, Rudy's life is profoundly affected by a nuclear detonation in his hometown.
Vonnegut’s trademark wit and satirical voice weave in and out of this seemingly depressing tale about the death of innocence.
The novel is the story of Eugene Debs Hartke, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned college professor. Hartke’s name is an amalgamation of famous socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and Vance Hartke, a famous anti-war senator from Indiana.
"Hocus Pocus" is a very disjointed narrative, a device Vonnegut is well known for. The narrator claims to have found it written on various scraps of paper, bar napkins and the like, and pieced it together into a semi-coherent narrative. This gives the story an episodic nature and allows Vonnegut the liberty of ending chapters with his own brand of ironic “punchline.”
Hartke, like Vonnegut, often refers to his wartime experiences and uses them as a frame for his current existence.
The plot of "Hocus Pocus" concerns a prison break and subsequent occupation of a nearby college, where Hartke is a professor. In the aftermath, the college itself is converted into a new prison and Hartke becomes the new warden.
If you’ve developed the ability to follow and enjoy a disjointed narrative by reading Vonnegut’s other works, you’re sure to enjoy "Hocus Pocus."
Oddly similar to the life of poet Ezra Pound, "Mother Night" is the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (a name that should be familiar to those who have read "Slaughterhouse Five"). Campbell is an American who took up residence in Germany following World War I, developed a bit of a following as a successful playwright, and later became a famous Nazi Propagandist.
Campbell’s role in the war is a dual one. He’s the voice of Nazi Propaganda on the radio, but is also simultaneously sending coded messages to American forces. His role in the service of American intelligence is top secret, which is why we find him awaiting trial in an Israeli prison at the beginning of the novel.
The ending to the novel is a surprising one, but I have no wish to spoil it for you.
No list of Vonnegut’s best works would be complete without his Magnum Opus, "Slaughterhouse Five." His most personal novel, "Slaughterhouse Five" draws deeply on Vonnegut’s own experiences in World War II and the firebombing of Dresden.
Billy Pilgrim is the main character of the novel, and we follow him through his time in World War II, through the Dresden firebombing, and into his family life following his return.
Billy “has come unstuck in time” and subsequently relates the events of his life to the reader in a non-linear fashion. Billy claims to have been abducted by aliens who taught him the secret of moving back and forth through his own life experiences, and he does so throughout the novel.
One of the most frequently-banned novels of the last 50 years, "Slaughterhouse Five" is one of those books that will have you discovering something new every time you read it. If you only read one of Vonnegut’s books, make sure it’s this one.