Saturday, December 8, 2012

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

From the favourer: "I always find it difficult to say why I like a book - it's so much easier to talk about the books you don't like. And maybe this book has an unfair advantage, being about war—even bad war stories can't help but be moving on some level. But Vonnegut's story has such an energy to it; and though it's the story of one man's degradation and mental disintegration it somehow manages to be both light and tragic. Which pretty much sums up the human condition. Something like that, anyway."

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. A witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden, he becomes an optometrist after the end of WWII, but finds himself increasingly displaced in time after his abduction by the alien race of Tralfamadorians, who house his naked self in a nicely furnished impression of an earthly suburban home, and introduce him to a lovely female mate (the Earthling movie star Montana Wildhack), with whom he...mates. After his abduction, every doorway can lead into another time and place for Billy. Sometimes he steps back only a few hours and watches a movie run in reverse, then forwards again. Sometimes he steps back into the horrors of being an American POW. Sometimes he steps forwards to the fate of his earthly wife. As we see, a lot, so it goes.

Vonnegut was himself a witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden, and the first chapter frames the rest of the book partly as his own story, told through Billy Pilgrim. I can be a bit daft about these sorts of things, so there were a few tentative questions from me to Tim, along the lines of "Is the guy who starts talking in the first part meant to be Vonnegut himself or something?"

Someone get this girl a Cliff's Notes.

Anyway, once I got the hang of this book, I slipped into its irresistible rhythm of tragedy, comedy, absurdity and deep sadness. At one point I stopped reading, and said to Tim: "I think I love this book." He said "Just as well, that could have been a deal-breaker." Fair enough, yo.

While vastly different in both tone and the amount of references to hairy legs, Slaughterhouse 5 reminded me a lot of Spike Milligan's writings on war - that sense of ridiculous comedy teamed with an almost unbearable sensitivity to both human suffering and human absurdity. There's a not-very-famous Milligan book (not about war) called It Ends With Magic which Slaughterhouse 5 called to mind: it takes a situation that obviously won't end well, and makes it 'end with magic', or, in this case, makes it come unstuck in time.

There's a quiet belligerence in what Vonnegut does with an 'anti-war novel'. He writes light-heartedly of horrific events, pulls the reader out of heart-breaking scenes into another decade or galaxy, and requires of us, if we're going to read the damn thing properly, that we give over to the internal logic of Billy Pilgrim's experience.But, as one character remarks in the initial chapter, writing an anti-war novel is about as much use as writing an anti-glacier novel, so we're never going to get off lightly. The depth of feeling that Vonnegut writes into a short novel with such clarity and elegance is often page-stopping:

Even though Billy's train wasn't moving, its boxcars were kept locked tight. Nobody was to get off until the final destination. To the guards who walked up and down outside, each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators too. In went water and loaves of blackbread and sausage and cheese, and out came shit and piss and language. Human beings in there were excreting into steel helmets, which were passed to the people at the ventilators, who dumped them. Billy was a dumper. The human beings also passed canteens, which guards would fill with water. When food came in, the human beings were quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared.

The Tralfamadorian view of time (probably 'themed' and 'motifed' to death in the Cliff's Notes I haven't got) only deepens Vonnegut's view of life and war. To these aliens, all moments in a life exist at once, so everyone is always alive. And yet Vonnegut writes, within this semi-ridiculous framework, so elegantly of suffering and death - from expiring in a box-car, to the pain of ill-fitting shoes.  It's hard to articulate (even if you're as long-winded as me) how in such a short novel, this balance of humour and horror, heartbreak and absurdity can co-exist.

He repeats it: so it goes.

And since reading Slaughterhouse 5 I've had in my brain the Elvis Costello line:

If I'm lost or I'm forgiven, the birds will keep on singing.

1 comment:

johnnypurple said...

I've loved Vonnegut ever since I discovered Cats Cradle quite by chance whilst travelling in Europe (I swapped a Douglas Adams for it with another traveller, a good deal I think!). I haven't read Slaughterhouse 5 in such a long time and from your review I realise I seem to have forgotten quite a bit of it. Though some of its images have stuck in my head vividly: him and his team of fellow POWs being forced to pick through bombed-out Dresden, (searching for bodies was it?). You make me want to read it again! So it goes.