If you enjoy a tinge of dark humour and satire in your books, you must have come across at least one of the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s books are known to be minimalistic and shun away from long complicated sentences but at the same time, they are known to address issues that are considered taboo, masking them with a pinch of humour. He is arguably one of the most celebrated satirists and novelist of the 20th century. In a career that spanned more than five decades, apart from his 14 novels, he wrote various plays, essays and other works. Each book in this list reflects his brilliant satirical and philosophical way of thought.
So, start your descend into Vonnegut’s timeless classics through the top 10 best works of this literary idol.
1. God Bless You Mr Rosewater
Vonnegut uses the example of a wealthy American Rosewater family to craft a satire on free enterprise, money and capitalism in America. The book introduces us to Mr Rosewater, a civil war veteran, who feels that his life lacks purpose and becomes obsessed with helping the poor and underprivileged citizens of his city. In his search for complacency, he goes to extreme measures as he even lets someone else live in his mansion while he lives in a small apartment. He believes that everyone deserves help, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But the generosity he projects proves to be counterintuitive as many of the citizens start viewing him as a mad man. He also ends up in a scrummage with his family as they protest against his free-handed attitude. In the traits of the troubled protagonist, we can see Vonnegut’s own conscience searching for kindness in a world obsessed with materialistic wealth.
The book is not the very best of Vonnegut, but even though it was published in 1985, it is scary and disheartening how the subject discussed is still relevant today. Overall, the book points out the importance of treating others the way you want to be treated.
2. Cat’s Cradle
Cat’s Cradle is a book that plays with your mind from the beginning. The narrator, Jonah, pretends to be engaged in acquiring a compilation of what Americans were doing when the atomic bomb was detonated in Hiroshima. He gets introduced to Dr Felix Hoenikker, the Nobel Prize-winning founding father of the atomic bomb through his three children. Jonah tries to sketch out a character image of the scientist in relation to his family and community and ends up getting tangled in a terrifying web of events. From the shenanigans of a crazy dictator to a deadly weapon that can summon an apocalypse on humanity, this book has all the elements to make it a must-read. Cat’s Cradle has warmth and anger and wisdom and an almost naive kind of brashness at times making it one of Vonnegut’s best works.
3. Slaughterhouse Five
Most readers get introduced to Vonnegut’s work through the Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s easily his most famous book. It is also known to be the book that is closest to his life story. The author, a former soldier tries to put his wartime experiences and the trauma he faced into words. The protagonist gets kidnapped and is put on exhibit on another planet, in their own zoo, where he acquires the ability to be ‘Unstuck in Time. This ability allows him to relive past moments in his life and reflect on them more deeply. The book creates a better understanding of the concept of 4th-dimensional time travel through this ability of the hero. The book centres around Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during the war and all of the atrocities that he has seen, culminating at the end with the Bombing of Dresden. It uses elements of science fiction to portray the horrors of war and the trauma that war veterans must go through in their lives. The book is filled with vintage Vonnegut’s satire, wit and black humour.
4. Player Piano
Player piano is Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel and like many of his works, the message conveyed is still very relevant. The novel is set in a future where the world is governed by supercomputers who are far more advanced and capable than humans. The protagonist is a rebellious engineer who somehow must find a way to survive in this soulless society. The widespread mechanization paves the way to a conflict between the wealthy upper class, the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, who has been totally replaced by machines and robots. The story is set in a fictional society that takes form after a 3rd world war. The novel begins 10 years after the war when factory workers and skilled labourers have been replaced by machines. Vonnegut uses irony and sentimentality to sketch out a possible scenario the human race could be dragged into, in the not-so-distant future which makes the story very intriguing and very unsettling. The book is said to be better savoured by readers who are already fans of the writer.
5. The Sirens of Titan
The Sirens of Titan is another gem of a story among Vonnegut’s many science-fiction adventures. It was his second novel but is widely regarded as the first book in which Vonnegut added his trademark style of storytelling. The story is set in the 22nd century and revolves around Malachi Constant who is the richest man in the world. But like most wealthy characters in literature, Malachi lacks direction and purpose in his life. That is until he is invited to witness the reappearance of an interplanetary space explorer who has the ability to appear and disappear on various planets at regular time intervals. He also can see the past, present and future making him somewhat similar to an oracle. The story then slowly unravels the plans he has for Malach and takes off after that finally culminating in a stellar ending. Vonnegut urges the reader to be sceptical about the things we assign meaning to and the conclusions we draw from the meanings we give them.
6. Mother Night
This novel is a lesser-known treasure of Vonnegut which takes a detour from his usual science fiction setting. The story is presented as the memoir of Howard W Campbell who moves to America from Germany and eventually gets brainwashed into joining the Nazis. The premise of the story is that he is waiting for his trial for war crimes in Israeli prison as he contemplates his life choices. The tragicomic nature of the story makes the reader sympathize with a Nazi propagandist from time to time. The character Campbell makes a brief cameo in Slaughter House Five. As Howard recalls what happened before, during and after the war, he asks the reader a haunting question. Does pretending to be evil in the service of a good cause still make you evil?
7. Welcome To The Monkey House
If you still aren’t impressed with Vonnegut’s ability to spin a tale, this anthology of 25 short stories is definitely going to make you a fan. The book showcases Vonnegut’s tremendous range as a writer and shows us that there is no limit to his quirky and hilarious imagination. The stories display a great variety of themes and models with the authors signature humour but also brings up his emotional side from time to time. The title story has a protagonist who kidnaps and rapes a woman. There is typical boy meets girl stories with dark twists and of course, futuristic science fiction stories too.
Jailbird is perhaps one of the most serious of all his works and that makes it a completely different reading experience. The story maintains a sombre tone throughout and this also might be his most politically opinionated books ever. The book follows the journey of bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House and ultimately to prison as the least known conspirator of the Watergate scandal. The story is written in the form of a memoir of Starbuck and discusses communism, labour history, capitalism and of course, the infamous Watergate scandal. Even though the first 11 chapters takes the tone of an autobiography, the next 13 chapters take on the familiar comic absurdist style of social commentary for which Vonnegut is better known.
Bluebeard is the story of an abstract expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian who entertains visitors into his home filled with all his priceless works. But at age 71 he takes a break and wants to be left alone in his estate with a secret he has locked away in his potato barn. The book acts as an autobiography and as a mystery novel at the same time. The book also has a tinge of humour and constantly jokes about Rabo’s paintings. This story is a reflection on an imaginary life, a faux biography, and a moral we could all probably take to heart. And the excitement of finding out what the artist hides in his potato barn makes the book a lot more intriguing.
10. A Man Without A Country
A Man Without a Country was Vonnegut’s last book before his death. The author dolls out a colossal amount of wisdom and wit through a collection of essays. It is a mini ramble that talks about his life, his writing and the state of the nation. This book is the closest thing to a memoir the author wrote. Vonnegut’s dark and twisted humour along with his genuine compassion for humanity makes this one a must-read. Fans of the author will definitely love it as the book is as close you can get to the author and his innermost thoughts and desires. The topics range from the importance of humour to problems with modern technology to Vonnegut’s opinions on the differences between men and women. The author passed away on 11th April 2007.
So there you are the top 10 best pieces of literature of one of the idols of English literature. So, dig into stories of fantasy lands and troubled humans and it is certain that you’ll be a Vonnegut admirer after this. We might never know everything that the author tried to convey in his career that lasted for 5 decades, but we sure can enjoy the ride!