The Year of Reading Dangerously – Kurt Vonnegut
In Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut performs an astonishing balancing act between reality and fantasy. A science fiction novel, featuring a protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who travels backwards and forwards along the timeline of his life, experiencing reality in the same way as the alien race that kidnap him and take him via flying saucer to their home planet, Tralfamadore, where he is placed on public display, it begins:
“All this happened, more or less.”
As usual with Vonnegut, everything is carried along by the world weary honesty of the narrative voice, exemplified by the novels’ catchphrase:
“So it goes.”
Here, however, this intimate, almost confessional tone is used initially not to animate Vonnegut’s characters but to discuss his attempts to write the book we are reading. Interestingly, what would seem to be a preface is identified as chapter one – intrinsic to the novel itself. In it Vonnegut is keen to establish the truth of his experience at Dresden, the importance of writing about it, and the difficulty of writing about it:
“When I got home from the Second World War twenty three years ago, I thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then…And not many words come now…”
In fact, Vonnegut is not simply introducing his theme, but his approach to it: the bombing of Dresden is he contends, like all such acts of mass violence, incomprehensible:
“Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like, ’Poo-tee-weet?’”
Only by adopting the viewpoint of an alien race can we even begin to understand it, “seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rockies.”
“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Vonnegut’s alter ego, the Cassandra-like Kilgore Trout, makes an extended appearance, unable to make a living from his science fiction novels, which are to be found gathering dust as window dressing in an adult book store. (Or that Pilgrim becomes an optician – this is a novel that is all about the way we see things).
Vonnegut’s central premise also provides an explanation of his structure as the narrative moves restlessly backwards and forwards through Billy’s life. It allows him to focus on the war throughout without ignoring either what comes before or after. It also emphasises the way in which his war experiences clearly never left him, creating a kind of eternal present in the novel. And, of course, the Tralfarmadorian view of reality corresponds to our own understanding of the novel, with the past and future clearly coexisting with the present no matter how the pages are sequenced. (In the first chapter, Vonnegut portrays a chronological retelling of events as childish, describing how he sketched the story on a role of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.)
The real question, however, is does it work? Does it deliver the anti-war novel he promises his friend, Bernard O’Hare’s, wife? It is certainly as readable now as it was when first published over forty years ago, though probably not as shocking (I could be wrong there, though – it was the end of the sixties). Vonnegut does not avoid the horrors of the war, but nor does he glory in them. There is no attempt to sicken the reader with descriptions of death and violence. Vonnegut uses the small detail or well-chosen phrase instead: less than a page tells of the removal of bodies from the ruins of Dresden, but Vonnegut says all he needs in the final sentence:
“Thus began the first corpse mine in Dresden.”
Despite an almost cosmic bleakness, you sense he feels sympathy for even his most unpleasant characters (Again in the first chapter, he quotes his father as having said to him, “you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”) War is not evil; it is – to go back to where we started – incomprehensible.
Danger rating: Vonnegut is very much a love him or hate him writer. His novels feel like conversations with the man himself, and he will either be someone you could listen to for hours or someone you will cross the street to avoid before he starts going on again…