Book Reviews

Book Review: Some notes on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before delving into Slaughterhouse-Five I think it’s worth lingering on the book’s title page for a while, because it reveals an awful lot of what the book is about.

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five / or The Children’s Crusade / A Duty-Dance with Death

Why Duty? As Vonnegut tells us later this is the book he’s been trying to write an account of the Dresden firebombing since the end of the Second World War; it was meant to be the first of the three-book deal he did with Sam. The ‘duty’ is I think to the dead of Dresden. Totentaz, Dance with Death, is mediaeval in origin and one of those potent images in European culture – from Breughel through Liszt to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal – and where Death meets the living reason is unhinged.

As the title page tells us – Vonnegut is a fourth generation German-American (how many generations until you are an American-American?) who lives in Cape Cod but who was an infantry scout in the War who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden (‘The Florence of the Elbe’) and survived to tell the tale.

But the tale is told in a ‘novel’ – ‘somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, were flying saucers come from.’

‘Somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner’ – this is a book about many things but one of them is, I think,  madness. And not simply the ‘madness of war’, although it is mostly about that. Vonnegut, whose family suffered from mental illness (his mother committed suicide, on Mother’s Day), uses the word ‘schizophrenic’. One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is ‘flight of thought’ – a random flitting from one perception to another with no apparent logical connection, as well as the hearing of voices and seeing of visions. Does Billy Pilgrim spend most of this book in a psychiatric ward? Might not the capture by Tralfamadorians and the uncontrolled time shifting for one incident in Billy’s life to another be this flight of thought?

On p 86 (of the original Delacorte Press publication of 1969, all references to this edition) it is 1948 – three years after the War ended – and Billy is in hospital with 29 other patients who ‘had come here voluntarily, alarmed by the outside world’. Billy keeps the covers over his head when his mother visits him. Billy is nuts.

Towards the end Billy’s back in hospital again, this time it’s not with Eliot Rosewater, but with Professor Rumfoord. It’s 1967, Billy’s plane has crashed – he’s the only survivor – and Rumfoord is there because he broke his leg in a skiing accident. Not obviously a psychiatric ward, but then again, we’ve been time shifting all over the place – Billy’s thoughts have been flying randomly for quite a while.

One of the interesting aspects of Slaughterhouse-Five is the role Kurt Vennegut plays in it. Vonnegut is a character in Slaughterhouse-Five. He makes no bones about it. As the first lines of the book say: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts anyway are pretty much true.” The qualifications are noteworthy – ‘more or less’, ‘pretty much’ – but they lay a false trail.

His war service and captivity in Dresden is true.

He did marry after the war.

He did attend the University of Chicago anthropology department (he finally got his MA in 1971 after submitting his 1964 best seller Cat’s Cradle as his ‘thesis’).

He was a police rounds reporter on a Chicago newspaper.

He did work in PR for General Electric.

He did teach creative writing at the University of Iowa.

These ‘facts’ are all from the first chapter which acts as the set up, a sort of prologue to the book proper. But Vonnegut makes a number – six to be precise – independent appearances in the book.

Cover of "Slaughterhouse-Five: Or The Chi...

Cover via Amazon

Sometimes these are like pop-ups where he’s saying ‘me too’. As in:

p. 58 ‘I was there. So was my old buddy Bernard V O’Hare.’ (after capture being sorted)

Or p. 105 ‘It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim – and for me too.’ ( being full of secrets)

Or p 109 ‘That was I. That was me. The author of this book.’ (in the prison camp on the latrine)

Or p. 129 ‘Someone behind him in the boxcar said: “Oz”. That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.” (on his way to Dresden)

But the authorial intrusion, as it were, that resonates most is this from p 140:

‘There are almost no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.’

Billy Pilgrim is the ‘listless plaything’ of both the war machine of which is but a small cog, and the Tralfamadorian insights into the nature of time.

‘’Why me?’ Billy asks when he’s captured by the Tralfamadorians on p 66.

‘That’s a very Earthling question to ask, Mr Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?’

‘Yes…’

‘Well, here we are, Mr Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why?’

It is a rather bleak, passive vision of the world; one where human action has no impact on events because they have already happened; our part is only to focus on the pleasant parts of our lives and ignore the unhappy ones.  It is this fatalism that informs the books most famous line ‘so it goes’ – the ‘whatever’ of the late 60s – and its constant repetition after the mention of a death (any death) serves to underline this grim view of life.

Favourite bits:

p. 19 ‘And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.’

p. 91 ‘How nice – to feel nothing, and yet get full credit for being alive.’

p. 96 ‘That’s the attractive thing about war,’ said Rosewater. ‘Absolutely everybody gets a little something.’

In Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that the greatest American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.

Simon Holberton

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