Posts Tagged ‘kurt vonnegut’

Slaughterhouse 5

September 30, 2011

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…

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

October 19, 2010

If any British writer is considering imitating Yann Martel’s campaign to get world leaders reading and is deliberating on a novel to break the ice with David Cameron, they could do worse than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 exploration of wealth and poverty, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Just like our present government, it seeks to examine issues of fairness (as they relate to money) and separate the deserving from the undeserving – though it perhaps goes a little further by facing up to the central question – “What are people for?”

I am sure Mr. Cameron would be gripped from the very first sentence, which is:

“A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

The income from this sum of money ($87,472,033.61), in an act of legal tax avoidance (little has changed), is placed at the disposal of a charity, the Rosewater Foundation, the presidency of which is to be inherited by the eldest male Rosewater, “free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased.” Unfortunately, the current President, Eliot Rosewater, has been taking the Big Society a little too seriously:

“Maybe I flatter myself when I think I have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done.”

After more than one breakdown, and many years of alcoholism, he eventually decides to return to the town where the family fortune began – Rosewater, Indiana – and to “care about” the people living there:

“I look at these people and I realise that they can’t even care about themselves anymore – because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river – they’re almost completely automatic now….I’m going to love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless and unattractive.”

While this may not be exactly what William Hague has in mind when it comes to welfare reform, it is remarkably cost-effective as Eliot goes about this single-handedly by manning a phone line twenty four hours a day. (We’re later told, “Eliot’s Rosewater County operation had been cheaper than staying in a sanatorium.”) Of course, such philanthropy doesn’t go unnoticed – at least, not by Norman Mushari, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about wealth creation:

“In every big transaction…there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on.”

If Mushari can prove Eliot insane then he can arrange for the Rosewater fortune to be inherited by a distant relative, after removing his share of course. As well as providing another commentary on avarice, this makes the reader question how sane Eliot is, or at least, how sane his actions appear to others.

Vonnegut’s novel is in a long line of literature dealing with this question of goodness and madness – Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is another example; as is, presumably, The New Testament – but one that is particularly concerned with money. He is quite clear that inheriting wealth is just “dumb luck” (that may not go down well in Cameron household), and creates a back story for Eliot’s family that suggests he does not buy into the idea that the entrepreneur is the highest form of life. Their fortune is created (as so many are) during war – the American Civil War. While one brother goes to fight, the other hires the village idiot to fight in his place and profits by converting his saw factory to the production of swords and bayonets. And, naturally, proceeds to swindle his brother (who returns from the war blind!) out of his share.

However, the novel’s lack of subtlety (another reason to suggest politicians as a suitable readership) does not mean it lacks complexity or seriousness. The questions it raises about equality and fairness have clearly not gone away. It is unlikely that Vonnegut would see politicians as the answer – Eliot’s father is a congressman whose greatest achievement has been to define ‘obscenity’. Above all, he reminds us that it is not about money, but about people, and it all starts with that question – “What are people for?”