Sunday, October 16, 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

I read this book back in the day, though I'm pretty sure only the once, when I was so entirely in thrall to Vonnegut, toward the end of my high school career. I'm pretty sure I never understood the enormity at the center of it, the February 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, the way he intended, only approximately. By the numbers (135,000 dead and the images he gives us of the destruction, comparing the Dresden landscape to the moon) it was worse than the March 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo (81,000 dead), which was worse than August 1945 Hiroshima A-bomb attack (71,000 dead). It was very bad, and 25 years after the fact Vonnegut is still gnawing away at it here, still quite evidently shattered by it, which is reflected in the strange way that his slender volume proceeds, with its Tralfamadorian aliens that kidnap the protagonist, its use of "so it goes" to punctuate every death (whether any mention of the thousands in Dresden or various life-forms), and the mystifying use of time travel, the coming "unstuck" in time that Billy Pilgrim experiences. It's something more than intense memory, but not by much. Then there is the very calculated and self-conscious way that Vonnegut injects himself. It's a novel, but there's Vonnegut using Chapter One the way others might use a preface or foreword, where he talks about how he begins the novel, which actually starts with Chapter Two. Just weird, but also convincingly reflective of a soul in extremity. It was a lot easier for me this second time through to set aside Vonnegut's variously annoying and beguiling tricks and focus on what he tells us about Dresden and to imagine what it must have been like to experience that and understand the horror. It's no wonder he spent the rest of his life opposed to war. It also raises questions about our conduct in and prosecution of the "good war." Both Dresden and Tokyo (and of course Nagasaki, and there's a case for Hiroshima too) appear to stand as acts of state-sponsored rage, a kind of terrorism, justified or no nevertheless coming from impulses that sensible people have always known must be set aside for the sake of civilization and humanity and other quaint ideas. It's cause for despair that these atrocities have mostly been covered up by history—which, I know, the victors write and all that. That's the despair that uniquely haunts this very strange little novel, and the reason it belongs in libraries until the end of time.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I saw this on my blogroll, and clicked through with the recent library story in mind, which appears you had in mind as well. So appalling.

    I've only read a couple Vonneguts, but this is a really great book. As I said recently about Lars Von Trier, one of the few examples of postmodernism (though it's a tough term to apply) that I can get fully on board with. Maybe it's more proto-postmodernism though. At any rate the deceptive calmness of the tone, the off-the-wall quirky details, and the self-conscious, self-aware storytelling are all grounded by the absolute horror at the center of the story.

    While we're riling ourselves up with the idiots who disparaged him or his work, did you ever see the sneering obit on him from Fox News? Depressing, but Vonnegut himself probably would have wryly appreciated it.

  2. I never saw the Fox News obit, but I can imagine. I remember the general braying and hooting from the wingnuts at his death, and you're right, it was depressing, one more data point among several hundred that were depressing at the time. The proto-postmodern angle had not occurred to me before (I have always tended to look the other direction with Vonnegut and think of him as the 20th-century Mark Twain), but sure, I think you're definitely on to something there. What impressed me this last time through was how suffused it is with sadness and how focused it is on telling the horrific story of Dresden.