Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I think of despair, I think of mutism. That is, I associate the deepest loss of faith with the inability to use words at all. Hemingway’s power derives mostly from the sense he gives that silence is so close at hand. It’s not just that he’s efficient with his language; it’s that each word carries a heavy emotional cost since the temptation to turn inward is so strong.

In this novel, one of the candidates to be his masterpiece, Vonnegut is playing a slightly different game. Words come easily. When someone dies, the phrase is right at hand, “And so it goes…” Ask our narrator a question, and he’s got a glib answer. There’s always something to say, and the words themselves are as cheap as the paperbacks Kilgore Trout writes and releases to the world. No one seems inclined toward silence. We talk because it’s what we do.

Yet despair is here, and it manifests itself in a pressure against narrative rather than language. Vonnegut, as the character of the narrator here, has no trouble spinning out a goofy premise like Tralfamadore or explaining the didactic point of a Trout novel, but he never lets us forget the effort it takes to tell a straightforward story. That’s because stories, as such, pretend to make sense of a world that he despairs of making sensible.

We see that assertion most clearly in the first chapter, when our narrator describes how he’s failed to write anything directly about his experiences in Dresden. When Mary O’Hare gets angry at him for preparing to write a novel about World War II, she angrily explains it’s because the stories always get it wrong. “Wars are fought by children,” she explains. And our narrator, acknowledging she’s right, agrees to call his book “The Children’s Crusade.” He doesn’t want to write a war novel, but he wants to try to tell a story – a senseless story of a devastating bombing raid by our own country that had no strategic value – so he has to write a novel about the war.

And the novel he writes goes on to fight with itself throughout. Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time because of the trauma he’s experienced, and that expresses itself most clearly in the way it breaks Vonnegut’s narrative. There is none of the conventional consolation that story/plot/narrative brings. We know early on that Billy will die in an assassination. We know he’ll be kidnapped by Tralfamadorans. We know that the universe will end when the Tralfamadorans screw up a test of their advanced rocketry. And we know that U.S. bombers will obliterate a German city called Dresden while a group of American P.O.W.s survive the onslaught in an underground slaughterhouse.

We see the same assault on conventional narrative in the comic book existentialism of the Tralfamadorans. Since they experience all time as happening simultaneously, nothing is ever a surprise. They urge you to cling to beautiful moments, knowing full well that they cannot control what will happen any more easily than they can control what’s already happened. There’s no surprise in their lives, only the capacity to choose what they focus on.

And we see it in the quick descriptions of Trout’s novels. They never seem to tell conventional stories either. They aren’t about plots where one thing happens after another. They’re about concepts that make you go “Hmmm.”

Vonnegut was hugely important to me as a high school kid. I read and re-read everything he’d written by the middle 1980s, and he helped me fall in love with literature as something that can expand my ideas in addition to my experience. I didn’t like this one that much in those years, though. I resented its frequent sloppiness, and I thought – despite what I understood to be its critical acclaim – it was a kind of phone-it-in effort after Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Mother Night. (It does reference important characters from each of those earlier ones.)

Coming back to this after more than 25 years, though, I see its sloppy storytelling as its most articulate feature. I believe Vonnegut when he says it took him more than a quarter century to write about Dresden. His experience made no sense, and trying to make sense of it though story would have been a betrayal of the horrors he saw and that others saw alongside him. Instead, he finds a way here to mock his own effort as a way to counter the despair that tried to keep him from telling that story at all.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, I still recommend starting with Cat’s Cradle or one of the other early novels (other than Player Piano which is playing a different game). Once you’ve got a handle on Vonnegut’s tone and universe, though, give this one a shot. I see now what I didn’t see then – this is literature at a high level. It is, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, news that has stayed news.

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