Friday, July 19, 2013

Mother Night

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
Read: 6 July to 12 July 2013
5 / 5 stars

As much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the craving I've had for his fiction. Sure, there is something to be said for watching a favorite author turn his fine-tuned gallows humor on himself and the society in which he both lives and has lived but sometimes I just want to be told a story, damnit.

Before launching into the novel proper, Vonnegut introduces Mother Night as the only story of his with a moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." He then spends 269 pages proving what a haunting, damning and dangerous moral it is, with enough self-awareness and dark jocularity to keep this tale -- the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American-born German playwright who hides in plain sight as a propagandist for WWII-era Nazis while all too convincingly infiltrating their ranks to aid the American government that employs him as a spy -- from getting too distastefully morbid.

It is, at first glance, a moral that stands in direct, fundamental conflict with what I believe to be true. Nothing galls me quite like the lazy assumption that a thing goes no deeper than its surface, that what it looks like is what it is and nothing more. To look no further than appearances subscribes to a flagrant disregard for motivation, circumstances, and any one thing's or person's capacity for multidimensional existence and purpose. To ignore the fact that there is almost always something working in the hidden recesses of the unspoken and unseen realms is, to me, the ultimate display of egotism, a perilous assumption that the observer knows more about a situation in which he plays no part and can't be arsed to offer it the courtesy of deeper contemplation or understanding by way of delving beyond the easy veneer.

But because this is Vonnegut, a message that seems to be an idealogical slap in the face of my own personal philosophy is, at its core, a confirmation that I'm not wrong. (And, really, what's the point of reading literature if not to find validation at the hands of greater minds?) If the Faustian origin of this novel's title heralds the eventual hellward saunter of one's bargaining-chip soul, the tale following such an exchange (that is, safety from the Nazis within their ranks as they believe him to be their loyal, hate-spewing voice) shows exactly why the road paved with good intentions leads to where it does. This isn't fake-it-'til-you-make-it terrain: This is a disturbing account of why hiding one's true goodness beneath layers of protective and necessary deceit without leaving a breadcrumb trail for others to find the way back to your honest intentions will always backfire, often with tragic consequences.

The story's moral shapes every character in this tale. Starting with the hero himself, who has an entire world convinced that his broadcasts of deliberately ludicrous anti-Semitic vitriol are spoken in earnest rather than in code, he comes to find that everyone who holds a more-than-fleeting place in his life after he is secreted away to anonymous but tenuous safety in a New York City apartment is hiding their true identities, too. From his doctor neighbor who refuses to acknowledge that his childhood detoured through a concentration camp to the woman he believes (and who has deceived herself into believing) to be his long-presumed-dead wife, from the friend who is really a spy who obliterates Campbell's incognito existence to the white supremacist whose retinue includes a black man and a Catholic who would otherwise be his sworn enemies if he hadn't become selectively blind to their egregious differences by converting them to his cause, absolutely no one is who they really are by virtue of self-denial.

There is a love story desperately trying to proclaim itself as a last bastion of hope in Campbell's apathetic post-war existence. While his beloved wife and muse, Helga, the actress for whom he wrote some of his finest plays as vehicles to showcase the essence of the adored and adoring woman who comprises the other half of his Nation of Two, is declared dead, it is clear that a part of the widower died with her. I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the woman who later finds Campbell in New York and claims to be his Helga isn't for two reasons: One, the truth, which is foreshadowed quite obviously though adeptly, is revealed fairly quickly; and two, it illustrates how desperately Campbell wants his wife to be alive and, when that is proven to be impossible beyond all rational thought, he then desperately wants to pretend this woman is his wife, if not a more-than-adeqaute stand-in for one person who has ever given his life meaning.

The dangers of such doggedly perpetuated tunnel vision that thrives by casting off all ties to reality is a theme that drives home the novel's moral. Leave it to our humanist friend to sum up the problems of both this novel of his and the world at large: "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."

Campbell knew what he was doing all along. Along his journey to the Israeli jail cell from which he spins his autobiographical tale, he collides with those who have no reason to doubt that he's their brother in arms against the lesser races, a mouthpiece whose convictions are evident in the words he reveals only to three other men and his memoir's audience to be nothing more than caricature on the surface and cipher in their meaning: These run-ins with his in-appearance-only compatriots provide crushing proof that they have warped their own perspectives to allow for the atrocities they've committed while Campbell had his wits about him all along. Rather than making the former apologetic victims of circumstance and the latter a heinous, calculating monster, Vonnegut accomplishes quite the opposite.

Stylistically, subtlety and understatement are the driving forces of a narration that relies more on a preference for telling rather than showing, a cardinal sin that anyone who's ever enrolled in a even one creative-writing class should recognize immediately; however, as any writer worth his ink will tell you, such rules exist to be broken for those who can break them with aplomb. While Campbell does allow images to speak for themselves, he is writing a memoir that is filled with his own observations, thoughts, conclusions and dot-connecting. What makes his propensity for telling successful is his succinctness: He doesn't dwell on a moment until its emotional resonance has been beaten into even the densest of reader, which is so often the unfortunate result of not trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions and extrapolating the significance of a scene to maximize the devastating impact. It's an an effect that not only showcases Vonnegut's talent but also hints at Campbell's own prowess as a man of words.

Vonnegut may have showed his hand early in terms of the overriding moral of Mother Night, though he peppers his novel with less emphasized though equally important truths that make the human condition a flawed but beautiful thing. The dangers of hate -- "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... 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. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive" -- are all but impossible to address in a novel that traverses so deeply and unflinchingly into one of the darkest stains on humanity's historical conscience. But as I've stated (probably ad nauseam) in other reviews, one of my other dearest personal beliefs is that one extreme cannot exist without a contrasting opposite to offer a counterbalance, which is another truth Vonnegut seems to agree with by the equalizing, comforting force his message of love delivers in these same pages: "Make love when you can. It's good for you."

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