Throughout Vonnegut’s career, the author published numerous best-selling novels known for their original, satiric, and thought proving approach to life and history. His career is often defined by the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, but his broader oeuvre is well worth exploring. In the books on this list, readers will encounter various approaches to the theme of free will, discussions of the American political system, aliens, and interstellar travel, as well as several novels that take the form of metafiction memoirs and autobiographies.
Vonnegut’s most famous novel and the one that solidified his career. It was published in 1969 and was an immediate success. It received numerous positive reviews from critics and other writers and featured at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. It follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who becomes “unstuck” in time and starts to experience his life nonlinearly. He serves in WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, is present for the firebombing of Dresden, and is abducted by aliens. These experiences culminate in him knowing the date and means of his own death and Vonnegut contemplating the theme of free will.
Cat’s Cradle is a very popular novel that is categorized as postmodern satire. It also has science fiction elements and was published in 1963. It explores religion, the arms race, and the broader use of weapons of mass destruction. The book tells the story of a fiction element, ice-nine, its creator, and his children. The book’s primary theme is free will, especially related to the use and creation of technology. This is a common feature of the author’s literature, dating back to his first novel. The novel ends when ice-nine is released, and all the world’s water is transformed into solid ice-nine.
Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, was published in 1973. It was his seventh novel and is categorized as metafiction and postmodern satire. It’s set in Ohio and around two characters, a Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The latter is a science fiction writer and a reoccurring character in Vonnegut’s literature. It also deals with the theme of free will as well as race relations. The title comes from the Wheaties breakfast cereal, something that Vonnegut humorously notes multiple times.
The Sirens of Titans
This is another novel that features Vonnegut’s characteristic style and the familiar Tralfamadorians later found in Slaughterhouse-Five. It was published ten years before the latter, in 1959. Vonnegut’s second novel followed a bored, extremely rich billionaire who learns about an impending interstellar war and makes a journey to Mars. He enters into a phenomenon “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” where he and his dog become “wave phenomena.”
Mother Night was published in 1961. It takes the form of fictional memoirs by the novel’s protagonist, Howard W. Campell Jr. He moved to Germany at 11 years old and become a Nazi propagandist. The novel is supposedly written why Campell is waiting for his trial for war crimes and is a great example of metafiction. Campell is another example of a reoccurring character in Vonnegut’s novels. He features in Slaughterhouse-Five. By the end of the novel, he meets Adolf Eichmann, who tells him it would be a good idea to write an autobiography.
Player Piano is Vonnegut’s first novel. It was published in 1952 and is defined by its exploration of technology’s effects on the human race. It’s dystopian and inspired by Vonnegut’s brief time working at General Electric. The story takes place in the future where human labor is almost entirely eliminated, and mechanization has created an unbridgeable gap between the upper and lower classes. Vonnegut’s major themes are free will and humanity’s faith in technology without understanding its true consequences.
Galápagos was published in 1985 and takes place in 1986 A.D. It explores the human brain and how evolution has created humankind. A group gets shipwrecked on the Galápagoes Islands after a financial crisis destroys the world’s economy. The people of Earth of infertile, aside from those on the island where they eventually evolve into new specimens.
Published in 1976, Slapstick is a novel that focuses on loneliness and individuality. It is another novel that explores Vonnegut’s personal experience, particularly his relationship with his sister. She died in 1958 of cancer, soon after her own husband died in a train accident. It takes the form of an autobiography written by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who lives in the Empire State Building, a structure that has fallen into disrepair. Vonnegut explained that the novel came to him in a daydream as he traveled to the funeral. His beliefs on the afterlife and loneliness are also included in this publication.
Bluebeard was published in 1987 and tells the story of Rabo Karabekian, a fictional abstract expressionist. He’s a character who readers can also find in Breakfast of Champions. The creation of art is one of the major themes in this novel, along with morality and if it’s possible to fuse the two. Readers will also encounter the Survivor’s syndrome, or the feelings of guilt some experience after living through something others didn’t. The novel was received positively by critics and was noted by some as an important milestone in Vonnegut’s career. But, some were less laudatory, calling it a “minor” work in Vonnegut’s oeuvre.
Jailbird is a comedic and thoughtful novel published in 1979 and is referred to as the author’s “Watergate novel.” Its narrator is Water F. Starbuck, recently released from prison for his role in the American political scandal. It’s yet another novel that takes the form of an autobiography. It explores American history, especially the labor movement, as well as the Nixon administration and McCarthyism. Kilgore Trout briefly appears in the novel, but only as a pseudonym for another character. This novel also helps define Vonnegut’s legacy as a pro-labor, anti-war writer, and thinker.