“You are who you pretend to be, so be careful who you pretend to be.”
That is the central thesis statement of Vonnegut’s Mother Night as well as its most powerful line. While I enjoy Vonnegut in general and am also a particularly big fan of Slaughterhouse Five, God Bless You Mister Rosewater, the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House among his works, this book, I think, is the pinnacle of Vonnegut’s creation.
It’s about a man who by day works as a propagandist for the Nazis and by night is a spy for the Allies. Pretty straightforward stuff, right? Only this man is wracked by guilt, both in the sense that he worries about what people might think of him in the West when they realize what he’s really doing and also, on a personal level, whether the stuff that he’s doing for the “good guys” is equal on a moral calculus to all the propaganda he’s put out for the Nazis. These are not questions with easy answers, and Vonnegut deftly maneuvers his way through this issue, all while keeping the wit that brings us to read Vonnegut about him.
Vonnegut uses a framing approach to this book, pretending that it’s actually a memoir being written by the main character while he is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison, which lends an extra bit of verisimilitude to the whole shebang. This also would have made it quite topical for the time, as the book’s release (1961) coincides with the capture, trial, and execution of Adolph Eichmann (caught in ’59, tried in ’61, hanged in ’62). Eichmann, of course, always claimed that he was little more than a bean counter in the Nazi machinery. The main character’s role in advancing the Nazi cause was, if anything, greater, and yet he seems at once more sympathetic and, because of the spy connection, perhaps a bit more likely to be set free.
Mother Night might not be the best introduction to Vonnegut, although unlike, say, Faulkner, it is hard to make a misstep in just picking out one of his works. I might recommend Slaughterhouse Five if, somehow, you have managed to avoid reading him up to this point. That being said, Night is in my opinion his best book, so I guess I could also say that if you are only going to read one of his books in your lifetime it ought to be this one. That being said, take care to read lots and lots of Vonnegut. He’s good for the soul.