David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Works of Kurt Vonnegut

Since I’m thinking about the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, I decided to do a short summary of his works here, along with my take on them and my star ranking of each. Vonnegut graded his own books in the course of his collection Palm Sunday, and I’ve included those rankings here too. Keep in mind that it’s been many years since I’ve read some of these books, so my remembrances of a few might be a bit off.

Player Piano (1952) — 3 1/2 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: B)
A relatively straightforward satire of a dystopian future about mechanization and its effects on blue-collar workers a la Huxley’s Brave New World. Vonnegut was still finding his voice here, so you’ll find relatively little of his trademark humor or authorial noodling. Some of the symbolism is a bit clunky and obvious. Yet his deep and abiding humanism still shines through every page.

Kurt Vonnegut's 'The Sirens of Titan'The Sirens of Titan (1959) — 4 1/2 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A)
The classic space-faring science fiction story as written by Salvador Dali and Lenny Bruce after smoking lots of weed. Vonnegut comes out after a seven-year hiatus swinging with a fully developed voice. The cosmic speculation here about the purpose(lessness) of human existence is both cynical and mindblowing.

Mother Night (1961) — 5 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A)
An angry and morally biting story about a Nazi turncoat on death row in Israel post-World War II. This is perhaps the most conventional of all Vonnegut’s novels, and one of his most heartbreaking. The moral, as spelled out in the author’s own preface: “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” Don’t miss the Nick Nolte film adaptation either.

Canary in a Cathouse (1961) — See Welcome to the Monkey House below.

Cat’s Cradle (1963) — 5 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A+)
The novel pits the cold and brutal scientific worldview of Dr. Felix Hoenikker against the ludicrous made-up religion of Bokononism. The adherents of Bokononism engage in silly rituals, speak gibberish to one another, hold contradictory beliefs about God, and have lots of sex. On a purely metaphysical level, the Bokononists are dead wrong about how the universe works; and yet Hoenikker’s scientific truths bring the world nothing but misery and apocalypse.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) — 4 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A)
Vonnegut’s ode to community and civic responsibility, and how they can go horribly awry. A comic American novel about an eccentric philanthropist and the lawyer who tries to bring about his downfall in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis. I believe this is the novel that introduces Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) — 5 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A+)
Vonnegut writes about Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and witness to the firebombing of Dresden (as Vonnegut himself was). Like the Bokononists, Billy’s defense against the horrors of the world is to retreat into insanity. He decides that he’s “come unstuck in time” and become the plaything of a fantastic race of aliens who experience their lives by dipping in and out of time at their leisure. The film adaptation is… eh.

Welcome to the Monkey House (1968) — 5 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: B-)
The seminal collection of KV short stories, repackaging almost all of the stories from Canary in a Cathouse and adding lots more. Includes classics such as “Harrison Bergeron,” “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” and the title story. Alternately hysterical, wistful, psychedelic, and just plain groovy. Yes, there are a couple of clunkers here, but the magic shines through.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) — 2 1/2 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: D)
Vonnegut’s fledgling effort at stage drama, and not a particularly successful one. All of the characters sound like — well, like Kurt Vonnegut.

Between Time and Timbuktu (1972) — 3 stars
A mishmash of KV’s novels up to that point, with a thin connecting thread in between them. An interesting introduction to the work of Vonnegut, but if you’ve already read the novels there’s nothing much to see here.

Breakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of Champions (1973) — 5 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: C)
This is the novel where Vonnegut either started walking or water or began to completely lose his marbles, depending on who you ask. Written in the style of a children’s book and including copious childish illustrations (some scatological), the book spotlights Kilgore Trout and also features as a major secondary character one Kurt Vonnegut, author of Breakfast of Champions. There was a major film adaptation in the ’90s, which I’m not quite sure anyone actually saw.

Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974) — 4 stars
A collection of essays and other nonfiction. Includes his famous meditation on science fiction (“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘Science Fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal”), among other gems.

Slapstick (1975) — 2 1/2 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: D)
Widely acknowledged to be a low point in Vonnegut’s career, Slapstick is science fiction satire that not even the author can take seriously. It’s about former president of the U.S. Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who lives in the ruins of the Empire State Building with — well, it just gets more incoherent from there. Adapted into another film nobody saw, Slapstick (Of Another Kind).

Jailbird (1979) — 4 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: A)
A solid return to form for Vonnegut, also featuring the return of Kilgore Trout. Probably the most political novel KV had written since Mother Night, this novel is suffused with the ghosts of Watergate, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, and Vietnam. Perhaps not one of his most memorable books.

Sun Moon Star (1980), with Ivan Chermayeff — unratable
A large coffee table book that I think is intended to be a children’s book, with illustrations by Ivan Chermayeff. It reads pretty much like you’d expect a children’s book by Kurt Vonnegut to read. It will probably set you back $20 or $30 for a copy, which means you’ll be paying about 50 cents a word, which is too much.

Palm Sunday (1981) — 4 stars (Vonnegut’s own grade: C)
Another classic collection of Vonnegut nonfiction, along with a single science fiction story that’s worth the price of admission alone: “The Big Space Fuck,” which features humanity’s attempt to colonize the galaxy by launching a spaceship filled with human sperm. Also contains Vonnegut’s attempt to grade his own career and a description of his failed doctoral thesis about how to graph stories.

Deadeye Dick (1982) — 4 stars
A rather peculiar and cynical satire about a boy who accidentally kills his mother a stranger as a child, and who spends the rest of his life atoning for it. Includes some stock Vonnegut characters from other novels, and large sections written as stage drama.

Galapagos by Kurt VonnegutGalápagos (1985) — 5 stars
Vonnegut at the top of his game. Narrated by a ghost living on the Galápagos Islands, where the remainder of humanity has (d)evolved into a species of dumb, happy seal creatures. And that’s just the frame story. Similar to The Sirens of Titan in its epic scope and speculation on the purpose of human intelligence, but this one always makes me cry at the end.

Bluebeard (1987) — 4 1/2 stars
Vonnegut takes on the art world through the eyes of a one-eyed artist, previously a cameo character in Breakfast of Champions. Stuffed full of metaphor and fairy tale allusion, this novel continued Vonnegut’s streak in the ’80s of hard-hitting, substantial, and occasionally heartbreaking books.

Hocus Pocus (1990) — 3 stars
Another of KV’s low points in his career. The conceit of the novel is interesting (a novel written on randomly ordered scraps of paper), but its meditations on the prison system are perhaps not quite as interesting or urgent as they could be. This is probably the Vonnegut novel I remember least well.

Fates Worse Than Death (1990) — 3 stars
The third collection of Vonnegut essays. Like most such nonfictional collections in an author’s later career, by this point we’ve pretty much read everything KV has to say.

Timequake (1997) — 2 1/2 stars
KV’s last gasp in the novel format, and it shows. This book featuring Kilgore Trout caught in a Phildickian time warp was resurrected from an earlier, failed novel that the author couldn’t finish. And so the story is interspersed with lots of breaking down of the fourth wall and some rather depressing authorial musings. Vonnegut’s best work always showed a delicate balance between humor and pain; in Timequake, he teetered a little too far to the latter side.

Bagombo Snuff Box (1999) — 4 stars
All the Vonnegut stories that didn’t see print in Welcome to the Monkey House. While not as essential a collection as Monkey House was, these tales are disarmingly good and, for the most part, not science fictional. This certainly doesn’t feel like a scraping of the bottom of the barrel. If nothing else, this book demonstrates how good Vonnegut was at simple, non-pyrotechnic storytelling.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999) — 3 1/2 stars
A collection of very brief vignettes, originally broadcast as radio pieces on NPR. Vonnegut goes to Heaven and “interviews” such people as Hitler, Shakespeare, and (of course) Kilgore Trout. Amusing enough, but very slight and not exactly essential to anyone but Vonnegut completists.

A Man Without a Country (2005) — unrated
The one work of Vonnegut’s I haven’t read. A collection of (from what I gather) highly political essays railing about the Iraq War and the incompetence of the Bush Administration.

***

That’s the whole shebang. So which one is your favorite?

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  1. John League on April 14, 2007 at 7:42 pm  Chain link

    Cat’s Cradle, if only for the grand absurdities of Bokonism, including pressing the bottoms of one’s feet against the bottoms of another Bokonist’s feet, thereby enjoying boko maru, the mingling of “souls.”

    I still remember that from last reading it in high school.

  2. tommyspoon on April 16, 2007 at 1:58 pm  Chain link

    I am ashamed to say that I have never read any of Vonnegut’s work other than “Slaughterhouse Five”. And I didn’t like it much when I read it. But you’ve convinced me to give “Cats’ Cradle” a try. “The Sirens of Titan”, “Mother Night”, and “Galapagos” also sound groovy.

  3. David Louis Edelman on April 16, 2007 at 2:42 pm  Chain link

    Well, Tommy, admittedly Vonnegut isn’t for everyone. He had a unique style and voice that made some people cringe.

  4. tommyspoon on April 16, 2007 at 3:50 pm  Chain link

    I wish I could remember why I didn’t like the book. I was in HS when I read it, and it sounds like I should have had the same reaction that you had. As I said, I’ll go to the library and check something out.

  5. Mick on April 18, 2007 at 3:14 am  Chain link

    Galapagos.

  6. Peter Hollo on April 23, 2007 at 6:23 pm  Chain link

    I’m a bit late to reply, but your post reminded me what a huge fan I was of Vonnegut. Mother Night chilled me to the bone when I read it, and I carry its message with me many years later; of the science fiction books, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favourite, although I pretty much agree with all your high-star-rated books above, and Cat’s Cradle is another wonder.

    I also really like the short stories in Welcome to the Monkey House, and I remember Galápagos made a big impression on me when I read it (I was definitely in high school, as I read it much closer to when it came out than most of his other stuff, but it would have to be late ’80s rather than 1985…)

  7. George Polak on April 27, 2007 at 1:08 pm  Chain link

    You mention that in Deadeye Dick a boy accidentally kills his mother. This is not true, the boy accidentally kills a perfect stranger. An important difference.

  8. David Louis Edelman on April 27, 2007 at 1:13 pm  Chain link

    George: Dang, I caught that from someone else’s tribute earlier and meant to fix it, but I forgot. It’s fixed now. It’s probably been 20 years since I read this one, so some of the details are a little fuzzy.

    Oh, and thanks for the heads-up.

  9. kendall on May 10, 2007 at 4:16 am  Chain link

    Cat’s Cradle is my favorite. I love the calypso’s, especially this one which I often quote:

    Tiger got to hunt
    Bird got to fly
    Man got to sit and wonder why, why, why?

    Tiger got to sleep
    Bird got to land
    Man got to tell himself he understand

    As an atheist myself, this one rings very true. I also love the fact that the Book of Bokonan is proven to be only true holy book ever written because it opens with the verse, “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

  10. Biz Opie on March 3, 2008 at 9:28 pm  Chain link

    “Sirens of Titan”

    Hands down.

  11. Dan on April 5, 2008 at 12:14 am  Chain link

    Mother Night, the way that book deals with the self and personal identity is truly amazing. I’ve read a fair deal of Vonnegut but basically all in one summer binge which i still haven’t decided if that was a good thing or a not-so-good (not that reading KV at anytime isn’t good) to truly absorb each novel. I haven’t re-read slapstick, and it’s been a while since I read it but I remember that i liked it very much (especially the part of how the egyptians built the pyramids), seeing his personal grade shocked me a little, but i guess that just means its time to re-read it to confirm or deny my first impression.

  12. casey horner on May 19, 2008 at 7:56 pm  Chain link

    My vonnegut collection now consists of 26 of his books. I have read 19 of these thus far and just cannot figure out a favorite. Theres just something special about each of them, and I love them all for completely different reasons. But the books that made me respect this man the most were: Sirens of titan, mother night, deadeye dick, and Galapagos.

  13. Sam Forsyth on November 12, 2009 at 11:49 am  Chain link

    I’m reading Hocus Pocus right now. I’ve ready everything else already.
    My Favorite is probably Sirens of Titan.

    I actually really liked Slapstick. Never understood why it took soo much greif from everyone.

  14. MO on November 25, 2010 at 8:59 pm  Chain link

    My Top Three:
    1. Breakfast of Champions (I like that you say it is written for an unknowing audience of children. I have always described it as being written for an audience from anothe planet. I also love scatology in literature).
    2. Galapagos (the first KV I read. It changed my life)
    3. Mohter Night (Fantastic novel and dare I say an even better movie…both are superb).
    I have read and enjoyed other works, but I doubt any will ever creep into my top 3. Now how about a Galapagos film (I assume Nolte will be in there somewhere).

  15. Despina Efstathiou on March 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm  Chain link

    I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut at college where we had to read Slaughterhouse 5 and I fell in love with his writing. The second book I read was Timequake and I loved it! I don’t understand why nobody likes it! It’s not only tragic it’s funny too! But yes my favorite has to be still The Sirens of Titan. I recently finished reading it for the 3rd time and I just love it! Still have to read Slapstick.

  16. John M. Sweeney on January 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm  Chain link

    Cat’s Cradle. That and Slaughterhouse Five were my seminal coming-of-age bibles. Then Monkey House, Sirens of Titan and all the good, old stuff. Woody Allen-esque. But Breakfast of Champions put me off Wheaties for decades and, to me, Mr. V. was never the same again.
    Now I have a younger friend and we enjoy books and film. “Tinker, Tailor …” was our latest reading-screening. I told her Le Carre and KV were my two favorites and she said, “Oh, yeah, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ and all that foolishness.”
    She is one of the most literate persons I’ve ever met. I’m thinking of suggesting SH5 for our next little project. Does anyone have a better idea? Especially for the book part. We sometimes do a book read only.
    When I was young, KV was my writer’s soul. Then, I had many newspaper accounts to write and everything KV seemed ridiculously positive. Now, these books seem just a bit juvenile. It is me?
    Which book should I re-read after 40 years? I really don’t want to re-read them all; I suppose after finishing Welcome to the Monkey House, I’ll re-read either SH5 or Cat’s Cradle.
    Then, hopefully, I’ll be able to say to my friend, “This is Vonnegut. You’ll like it.”

  17. ultrahedonist on February 15, 2012 at 7:25 am  Chain link

    my favourites are slaughterhouse five, cat’s cradle and, most passionately of all, sirens of titan. i have its line about a meaning of human life being to love whoever is around to be loved framed on my bedside table. and those moments are why i find vonnegut uplifting rather than depressing, because when someone who really gets how confusing and scary the world is comes out with stuff like that it actually seems meaningful and inspiring.
    just finished player piano on a friend’s recommendation and found it nice enough but, like you say, a bit clunky and unsubtle..

  18. BioSlut on August 13, 2012 at 9:00 am  Chain link

    Sirens of Titan all the way…But i have yet to read Slaughterhouse 5..haha

    and I love how he speaks to the youth in A Man Without a Country. Such a great human being. K.V. XOXO

  19. The Water's Edge » Ten Cold War Novels Worth Reading on November 5, 2014 at 8:30 am  Chain link

    […] brings disaster to everyone who touches it—and by the end of the story everyone has. Vonnegut gave himself an A+ for Cat’s Cradle. I […]

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