Friday, 9 October 2015

Lev Butts Reviews Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonegut

Another cover that just makes you want to pick it up
Kurt Vonnegut has a keen sense of the absurdities of modern life. Where Richard Monaco uses historical fiction and fantasy as metaphors for these things, Vonnegut uses science fiction and comedy. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut turns his absurdist, satirical eye on everything from war to middle-age, from death to the illusion of free will.

And he does it hilariously. In this novel, Vonnegut sets out to write the memoirs of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and ultimately sent to Dresden, Germany, where he was held as a POW in an underground converted slaughterhouse and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden (at the time, one of the least known firebombings of World War II and one of the most tragic).

Pictured: Comedy gold (above), Uncontainable jocularity (below)
The entire first chapter, in fact, is essentially Vonnegut apologizing because he can't write firsthand about the horrors he witnessed. he can't write about the battle, his capture, the dysentary, the firebombing, or even the killing of an American soldier afterward for stealing a teapot (seriously, this guy is funnier than the love child of Patton Oswalt and Steve Martin).

He keeps trying, but he just winds up getting hammered and drunk-dialing old girlfriends. Finally, the wife of his oldest friend explains why he can't write about the war:
"You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!" 
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I — I don't know," I said.
"Well I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it The Children's Crusade."
She was my friend after that.
He begins his story proper in the next chapter, but he is no longer the protagonist (though he is an extra, appearing in the background of several scenes, but never part of the main action). Instead we have Billy Pilgrim, a middle-aged New England optometrist and survivor of Dresden, who has come unstuck in time.

He flip-flops higgledy piggledy through his timeline: one minute he's a little kid, the next he's getting assassinated; after that he may be in the POW camp, or he may be in the earthling exhibit in the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore (whose inhabitants experience past, present, and future simultaneously). He experiences horribly tragic events, he experiences beauty as well, and boredom and mundanity.

Seeing these things helps him come to grips with death, as he tells his fellow earthlings when he returns from his time on Tralfamodore:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."
What Billy (and by extension, Vonnegut, and by extension, we) learns is that the best way to live this life is to focus on the nice bits and try to ignore the bad.

It is because of this theme, that I think Slaughterhouse-Five makes a good companion piece to The Great Gatsby. They both deal with the moral shortcomings of humanity, one in times of war, the other in times of peace, and together they provide what I think is the best advice for living: Don't leave messes for others to clean up and concentrate on the happy times while trying to ignore the bad. Both are hard (if not impossible) to do, but they are at least worth the effort.