Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, Kurt, 1969

Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, Kurt - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Slaughterhouse Five is a cathartic anti war novel centered around the author's witnessing of the fire-bombing of Dresden. It also focuses on the pathetic life of the protagonist, a grown man named Billy. The full title of the book is more than a mouthful, but for purposes of completeness, here it is:

Slaughterhouse Five; or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much) Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire-Bombing of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale: This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From.

Its an anti-war novel through and through that relies on human fault and foibles to show the futility of war, while also acknowledging that there is really nothing that can be done to prevent it. Though the central message is anti-war, the subtext goes in several directions at once and either says that witnessing war, and in particular a massacre, is so numbing that even the good things that happen to you afterward are paled, or that on the balance life is what it is, so enjoy what you can because you never know when you will be whisked away to something foul. Vonnegut also uses the work as a way to expel all the personal shock and fright of his observations, from combat in Luxembourg to the fire-bombing of that once beautiful but oft destroyed city. For that reason many have concluded that Billy Pilgrim is an autobiographical version of the author, but Vonnegut denied that many times before his recent death. So it goes.

Vonnegut recounts in the pages of the story that it took twenty-five years to write this thing. He informs us in the introduction to the tale that he wrote and threw away 5,000 pages before he started saving pages for this book. Before he really started writing he went to his friend's house to discuss war memories, and his wife became upset at him, thinking that he would write a book glorifying war which would do nothing more than inspire babies to go fight in the next one. Vonnegut promised that he would not make heroes out of the characters, and stuck by his word. I think it s safe to say that there were no likable characters in this book whatsoever. Vonnegut went out of his way to make them pathetic losers, or aggressive hate mongers, or blithering idiots, or diseased kooks. Pilgrim, a blithering childlike idiot is too spineless really to do anything on his own may be the worst of them, though in the end you cant help but look on him with sympathy and pity. Vonnegut tells this story with a very simplistic prose, always choosing the simpler words to make his point. He was criticized for writing in "baby-talk" by many over the years, but the oversimplified prose does add to the strength of the message: Vonnegut uses this style to hit the reader over the head and seems to be saying "hey stupid, even a kid gets that massacres are horrible!" That is not to say that Vonnegut has written a simple piece. In fact Vonnegut's complete psychological deconstruction of his main character really is quite complex, and quite convincing. But the language choices that Vonnegut uses really do take the harshness of the story away, and in an odd way endear the reader to Pilgrim. Unlike Vonnegut's other major early foray into the genre in The Sirens of Titan which really was about the meaningless of existence, this book seems to say instead that war is the thing that we can do without, and most of the other stuff is worth keeping and holding onto and saving. Vonnegut does touch on other issues as they relate to war, such as the hierarchies that we set up, how sexuality pushes us to combat, how poverty affects aggression, and so on, but what I was left with was the message that even though life is good, and it gets irreparably bad when people start slinging bombs at each other, so just don't do that no matter what.

Vonnegut's main character is an optometrist named Billy Pilgrim and as I stated already, Pilgrim is an incredibly pathetic creature. During WWII he was a POW and was held in Dresden, Germany. Pilgrim somehow escaped death, and outlived a few other pathetic creatures who died largely because they had anger in their hearts. Sometime in 1944, when he was a non-com pastor's assistant in Luxembourg, Billy became "unstuck in time," which means that frequently and without warning his awareness would be moved from where ever he was at the time, to some other point in his own life. He could be moved to his birth, or to his death, or anywhere in between, but when he was transferred, he felt forced to play the role of that point in his life, and had no ability (or maybe no desire) to change any aspect of his life, past, present or future. So Pilgrim, for example, boards a plane for an optometrist's convention in Montreal in the 1960's, even though he knew that it was going to crash, because hes lived those moments countless times in the past. But that is not all that is odd about Billy. Sometime in his 40's he was kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians (aliens from another of Vonnegut's books, The Sirens of Titan), and put into a zoo where he met and was mated with a B-movie actress named Montana Wildhack. It should be noted that Billy never started talking about the Tralfamadorians until after he sustained a major head injury in the plane crash, which only he and one other person survived. In fact Vonnegut leaves completely unstated the possibility that Billy is certifiably nuts and is having delusions. It does not really matter though, because if Billy is crazy and delusional, than the real message becomes that the nutty, pathetic guy may be saner than the rest of us.

The Tralfamadorians are odd beings that resembled an inverted funnel with a hand for a head and with one eye on top. They could see in four dimensions, and felt sorry for those of us who could only see in three. They had nothing to do with Billy becoming unstuck in time, but with their inbred understanding of time, they did try to help him understand it. Not that it helped much. The Tralfamadorians did not lament anything, including death. The way they saw it someone who had died merely was not doing so well at that particular time, and there were innumerable other moments where that being was doing just fine. Billy was first kidnapped after his daughter's wedding. At one point in the book he is whisked away to that moment in his life. He had lived this moment so many times he was not afraid, and so he just waited for it to happen again while watching TV. As he waited he became unstuck in time again while watching a movie about WWII bombers. This passage is my favorite in the entire book, and I think it it pretty much sums up Vonnegut's heart's desire. I have come to learn that this is one of the most famous passages from the book, and may be ,em>the five paragraphs that make Vonnegut a man of letters. Here it is:

He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

Vonnegut is not with us any longer. He recently passed away, after, I assume, a wonderful and long life. Though most of his books at least touch the genre lightly, Its hard to say that more than three or four are actually SF books. Vonnegut himself loved SF, but realized that in his era writing it would be career death. On the subject, and after the release of Player Piano, he said, "I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ''science- fiction'' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station." At least that is what he said in a 1965 New York Times column. Later in life he got a little more blue and liked to say that publishers "peed in that drawer frequently." I wish it had not been that way, but Im grateful for what SF Vonnegut did give us. People still debate polar opposite positions about whether what he had to say in the context of SF was meaningful or useless. But about the way the literati of the 60's and 70's treated SF, of course, he really was right, and it was not until the early to mid 1990's when SF started getting recognition as an intelligent genre that Vonnegut (willingly?) took his place in the pantheon of Great Authors. This book and a few others of his SF are absolute classics of American Literature, even though they were sold as something other than SF. Anyway, I often wonder what he though of all of that right before he passed. Five out of five stars.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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