Slaughterhouse-Five book review
“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true”.
So begins the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s first really successful novel. Vonnegut served in the American army in World War II, was captured by the Germans, and, in February, 1945, survived the Allies’ bombing of Dresden by hiding in the basement meat locker of the building where he and the other POWs were quartered.
That event affected him profoundly. For years, whenever he was asked what he was writing, he said he was working on a book about Dresden; Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, is that book. It was written as a response to a war that could not be explained, much less justified. “It is short and jumbled and jangled,” he writes , “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. It was the first of his books to become a bestseller, and has been ranked by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. Appearing at about the time the US began sending troops to Vietnam, it was hailed as an anti-war manifesto for a new generation: he was invited to speak at rallies and college commencements, received several honorary degrees, and, in 1972, saw his most famous work made into a movie. The book’s repetition of “So it goes”, said whenever a death occurred, became a catchphrase of the left.
The story is nonlinear in style, switching back and forth in time and told from the perspective of the narrator, who is Vonnegut himself, and the main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist-turned-reluctant-soldier. Billy frequently becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back to a period when he was young, or ahead to the future when he’s married with children. Or, more and more often, to the planet of Trafalmadore where he’s put on display in a zoo made entirely of glass.
Before we learn any of this, we are told that Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. He studies optometry, is drafted into the army, and, after the war, finishes his optometry training and becomes engaged to the overweight daughter of the founder of the school. After suffering a nervous collapse, he’s given shock therapy and released, marries his fiancée, and goes on to become rich and father two children. In 1968, on a trip to an optometry convention in Montreal, Billy’s plane crashes on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everyone but Billy is killed. While he’s recuperating in hospital, his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning on her way to see him. Billy then heads to New York City hoping to get on a talk show – he wants to tell people about being kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967 and how, while there, he was mated with an Earthling movie star named Montana Wildhack.
As Billy explains to his daughter, he first came unstuck in time in 1944, long before his trip to Trafalmadore. He was a chaplain’s assistant in the war and got caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Dazed and disoriented, he joined three other survivors wandering through enemy territory, attempting to avoid Germans. One of these men was an anti-tank gunner named Roland Weary. Obsessed with dreams of grandeur – and pretty stupid to boot – Weary saves Billy’s life several times, in spite of Billy not particularly wanting to be saved. Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by ill-fitting shoes; as he’s dying he rants about Billy, blaming him for his death. Another soldier, Paul Lazarro, promises to track Billy down after the war and kill him. Revenge, he says, is life’s sweetest pleasure.
The men are captured by Germans and taken to a POW camp containing a lot of dying Russians and a handful of English military officers who’ve been there almost since the beginning of the war. None of the officers have seen a woman, a flower, or even a bird for four years, and they have little experience of the war as it’s now being fought. As one of them confides,”You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘My God, my God -‘ I said to myself, ‘It’s the Children’s Crusade.'”
The newly arrived American prisoners are fed and clothed and then shipped off to Dresden to work as forced labour. They are housed in a former slaughterhouse, and it is while they are interned there that the British and American forces carry out a series of aerial attacks, dropping more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, destroying over 1600 acres and killing between 35,000 and 135,000 people, depending on whom you believe. When Billy and the others venture out of the slaughterhouse, they see a landscape that resembles the surface of the moon. Put to work among the ruins, with the task of interring dead bodies, they are warned against looting. When one of their members finds a teapot, he’s summarily put on trial and shot.
After receiving an honourable discharge and being sent home, Billy spends some time in hospital being treated for what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. While there, he’s introduced to the works of Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction writer who Vonnegut based his friend and fellow writer, Theodore Sturgeon. (“Trout”, “Sturgeon” – both fish. Get it?) He’s also been viewed as Vonnegut’s alter ego. Most of Trout’s novels “dealt with time warps and extrasensory perceptions and other unexpected things”. Vonnegut obviously was fond of the character. He appears in seven of Vonnegut’s novels and plays a major role in three of them.*
Billy Pilgrim has seen his birth and his death many times, so he knows exactly how and when he will die. In 1976, he’s 54 years old and is giving a speech in Chicago about his alien abduction. He tells the crowd that Paul Lazarro, a man he knew during the war, will either kill him or have him assassinated. And that, apparently, is what happens.
In my view, Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer for those who don’t tend to read science fiction. I wouldn’t know Kim Stanley Robinson if he sat on my face, and I’ve often wondered about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. (Although I read recently that Isaac Asimov said that science fiction, with its grounding in science, is possible, while fantasy is not. So that helps.) I love Vonnegut because he created characters I can relate to. He was a humanist, an atheist, and a pacifist. He was also pretty cynical about humanity in general so although he was against war he was resigned to it, believing that wars, like death and taxes, would always be with us.
Vonnegut’s last book, in 2005, was a collection of biographical essays, “A Man Without a Country.” It concludes with a poem he wrote called “Requiem,” which has these closing lines:
“When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
‘It is done.’
People did not like it here.”
And so it goes.
*If you’re really interested in Kilgore Trout you can check out The Narrative Function of Kilgore Trout and His Fictional Works in Slaughterhouse-Five by Jesús Lerate de Castro (Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 7, 1994: 115-22)