And nothing hurt — A Kurt Vonnegut reading order
When I first finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five, I put it down and thought, “I need to read more Vonnegut, and I need to do it now.” But, with his books commonly interlinked and self-referential, it can be difficult to know where to start.
#1 – Cat’s Cradle (1963)
We start with one of Vonnegut’s more depressing novels. Cat’s Cradle tells the story of the fictional superweapon “Ice-9,” which has the power to freeze all water on the planet and destroy the world. While an obvious parallel to the ongoing Cold War and threat of nuclear apocalypse, the novel remains resonant today, with ecological catastrophe still on our minds.
It’s a solid introduction to Vonnegut, coming at a time when his style had developed beyond his earlier work. Cat’s Cradle feels like an inevitable tragedy that could’ve been easily avoided, and that contradiction will prop up again and again in Vonnegut’s work.
#2 – God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965)
Vonnegut’s works occupy a scale between down-to-earth and sci-fi, and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is on the more realistic end of the scale. The novel explores the life of millionaire Eliot Rosewater, who tries to give up his fortune through opening a charity and listening to the troubles of anyone who comes to his office.
It’s also our introduction to Kilgore Trout. Trout is a sci-fi writer and recurring character (and part self-insert) in Vonnegut’s novels, whose life details change depending on the book. He’ll be varying levels of important as we go forward.
#3 – Mother Night (1961)
This is one of Vonnegut’s more straight-forward and under appreciated novels.
Through the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American Nazi collaborator who secretly worked as a spy for the Allies, Mother Night declares there’s no difference between who we pretend to be and who we are, and so “we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Campbell exists as a pawn for Allied High Command, to who he is entirely disposable. That he has no choice but to continue his collaboration means his life has been predetermined, a theme that’s central to our next entry:
As Slaughterhouse-Five is widely regarded as Vonnegut’s best work, it might seem strange to not begin with it. However, in this non-linear story of Billy Pilgrim becoming unstuck in time, we once again meet Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater, and Howard W. Campbell Jr, so there’s value in reading the earlier stories first.
It’s appropriate that they should show up again, since Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s best exploration of free will (a recurring theme in his novels, but especially the previous three). Rosewater seems unable to escape the circumstances of his birth; Campbell seems unable to atone for his actions, even if they were ultimately in service of the Allies. And Billy Pilgrim, captured by the Tralfamadorians and kept in a zoo for their amusement, eventually concludes that everything has been predetermined without our say.
#5 – The Sirens of Titan (1959)
The most conventionally sci-fi of his novels, The Sirens of Titan is the first appearance of the Tralfamadorians, before they’d later be central to Slaughterhouse-Five. Here, they once again orchestrate galactic events, and once again Vonnegut examines how much choice we have in anything.
The story focuses on a Martian invasion of Earth. However, unlike other sci-fi stories about extraterrestrial invaders, the Martian invasion is doomed to failure from the start. Earth wins the war with minimal loss, because Vonnegut is more concerned in exploring Earth’s reaction to so thoroughly trouncing the invasion than in some heroic resistance to it.
As his second novel, it’s a bit strange to see his style not fully-formed, but it remains an enjoyable read regardless.
By contrast, Vonnegut’s style is perfected in Breakfast of Champions. While not sci-fi, it is weird, showing the parallel arcs of Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer, and Kilgore Trout, our old sci-fi writer friend. Vonnegut himself appears as a character throughout the novel.
It also includes cameos from Rosewater, and Kazak (from Sirens of Titan). In many ways, this is the culmination of all the ideas Vonnegut was developing throughout the first half of his career. Throughout, he tells you explicitly what’s going to happen in later chapters, giving the impression that there’s no other way.
It’s a wonderful read, and I consider it to be his best.
#7&8 – Deadeye Dick (1982)/Bluebeard (1987)
So here’s our return to those. Both Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard are fictional autobiographies. Deadeye Dick is about Rudy Waltz, who grew up in Midland City and returns to it; Bluebeard is about Karabekian, who Vonnegut uses to talk about art and legacy.
The two are vintage Vonnegut protagonists of character types you’ll be used to by now, but their narrative voice is developed enough to keep them distinct and interesting.
Since both books expand on Breakfast, they form a sort-of thematic pair, almost twin books.
#9 – Galápagos (1985)
The ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, Leon Trotsky Trout, narrates Galápagos, which unfolds over a million years. Once again exploring determinism, Vonnegut places a small star next to character names to indicate their death is soon, an effective device to point out there’s no way for these people to avoid their fate.
The story sees a small band of humans shipwrecked and slowly evolve into a new species. It’s an interesting experiment in narrative that’s executed in a fascinating way.
This is the last novel that feels distinctly Vonnegut. While the rest of the list feature his recognisable style (with one notable exception), they can be fairly experimental.
Jailbird is probably the most depressing of Vonnegut’s work. There are no sci-fi elements. Instead, the novel follows Walter Starbuck, who has just been released from prison — he was arrested for playing a minor role in the Watergate scandal.
Starbuck wanders around New York City, desperately trying to find a place to go. He finds himself alienated from an individualistic and stratified society, a clear comment on the 1970s shift towards individualism and the worldwide recession.
The entire novel has an atmosphere of hopeless defeat, brought into sharp relief by the fact it’s so real. There’s some level of distance between us and Billy Pilgrim, kept in the alien zoo; we could always turn into Walter Starbuck, if we’re unlucky.
#11 – Hocus Pocus (1990)
Here we reach Vonnegut’s second-last novel. A strange, fragmentary novel, Hocus Pocus follows Eugene Debs Hartke, imprisoned and dying of tuberculosis. Of course, given it’s Vonnegut, Hartke is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and has no-one willing to listen to him when he says he didn’t do it.
The fragmentary quality comes from the extremely short chapters. The novel’s framing device is that Vonnegut has put together a series of loose writings from Hartke, which were scribbled on whatever he could find. As such, some chapters are only a sentence long, reflecting him running out of space.
Yet another fictional autobiography, this time of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, mutant human and former President of the United States. He implements a plan to give all Americans an artificial family assigned randomly, in an effort to eliminate loneliness.
This novel is divisive, with some believing it substandard compared to Vonnegut’s usual quality. However, his writing on loneliness is clear and cuts through, and while it’s somewhat different to his usual themes, it’s still a fantastic read.
It carries more weight read towards the end. As he says in his introduction, this is the most autobiographical of Vonnegut’s novels, so it’s best read now.
#13 – Player Piano (1952)
It might seem strange that we waited until the penultimate entry to read Vonnegut’s debut novel, but the reason is simple: it’s just not as good. Compared to his later work, the style is unsteady and unformed, and it suffers from Debut Novel Syndrome, being about 25% longer than it needs to be.
I’d honestly only recommend this to a huge fan looking to read it for completeness sake. While it’s a prescient look at automation that still rings true today, those style problems drag it down.
Welcome to the end of the line.
Timequake is hardly even a novel. While it follows Kilgore Trout as a sort of last hurrah, it also contains myriad asides from Vonnegut, who writes directly to the audience in chapters that are more like essays than narrative fiction.
Still, as far as goodbyes go (and this is written like a goodbye, no question) it’s a well written one that serves as Vonnegut’s final word on the themes he’s grappled with throughout his work.
At this point, having read all the novels, you might want to move to reading his many collections of essays, short stories, and speeches. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you reading for a long time.