People love this book. According to Wikipedia, the New York Post credited it as “the best novel by an American writer published in the 20th century.” — however, a citation is needed. Citations or not, a trip around the Internet quickly shows that this book is very highly regarded.
So when I ended up thinking that it’s merely okay-to-good (or, in the parlance of our times, “Three Stars”), I have to wonder what went wrong. Am I even dumber than I thought and I just didn’t get it? Were my expectations too high going into it? Or is it something else altogether?
My best theory is that this book is the product of its times. Published in the 1960s, it’s a book about the Cold War and arms races. It’s a book about the fears of the world ending from a single cataclysmic mistake involving a super-weapon. It’s a book, as near as I can tell, about counter-cultural religious experimentation on the leading edge of…whatever happened in the 60s and 70s. Honestly, I’m sort of grateful to have missed it.
But with all of that wrapped up in these pages, it turns out that the book doesn’t really have anything to say to someone like me who was born in the early 80s. I’m not terribly concerned about a nuclear war between the United States and Russia (though I’m frightfully concerned about states like Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea). The religious experimentation of my peers ends up as “None for me, thanks.” more often-than-not these days. So, whatever thoughts or emotions Vonnegut’s original audience had when reading this just don’t get transmitted to me.
I don’t think it’s terribly special as a work of literature either. The writing style is very short and choppy. It’s all short,simple sentences building up to short, simple paragraphs. (An aside: This sounds like roughly the same criticism I leveled against Feed, but it’s not. Feed was just written incredibly poorly whereas Vonnegut knew what he was doing and was simply writing well in a particular style. I don’t know how to explain the differences, but they’re readily apparent when reading either.) This didn’t make the book bad in any sense; but it also didn’t help to make it interesting.
It was almost written from the perspective of someone who was a bit stoned — which, again, didn’t necessarily appeal to me since I’m not from the 1960s.
It’s not a bad little book. It’s short and easy to read. It’s relatively important in the world of American literature for some reason. From a distance, it’s got some interesting plot hooks. But it ends up ultimately being merely good instead of great and it never stops feeling like it should have been better than it actually is. Kind of a shame.