Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.
To do a Slaughterhouse-Five review is to do your own ‘duty-dance with death.’ So it was when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s classic about, among other things, the bombings of Dresden and a man moving backward and forward through time. I read it about two years ago, but the most powerful reads feel like you read them yesterday.
Some books, as you know, do more than take you away, or inform you. Some books change you just a little bit, and help you to find your own voice. The late author connected so easily with me. If you are new to Vonnegut, or his black humor, or if you intend to read based on a review such as this, you might be surprised just how easily he connects with you.
My first experience with Vonnegut was the novel Cat’s Cradle, which my friend Joe probably lost in the sands of Afghanistan soon after I lent it out to him. This is very Vonnegut. To lose a book warning about the perils of a doomsday weapon, and war, in the midst of a war where it might have been useful, is the kind of unfortunate thing that might have made him smile just a little.
Next came his short story, “2 B R 0 2 B” which we (my WYRM cohorts and I) used as the basis for a round of The Gauntlet some years ago. This, too, yielded some hilarious results, as it led to a copypasta job (I hesitate to say plagiarism) from Wikipedia, and then one entrant deciding to ascribe some curious, and very conservative, political viewpoints to the author, which he did not hold. Why?
None of this made sense, yet, that is what Vonnegut is always telling us in his work. Life often doesn’t make sense. There may be nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, but there is something quite intelligent to say about Vonnegut. And along the way, he might make you laugh inappropriately. Without further ado, this was my experience with Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death.
I wondered what a ‘Children’s Crusade’ might be a reference to when I first picked this up, or what one might look like. Evidently, it would look a lot like World War II.
Vonnegut himself was an American soldier during the war, who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany as a POW. He noted just how many of the soldiers were youngsters, from both the Allies, and their enemies, and how much was riding on youth. Is that because so many more seasoned men had already been killed, or because the young are inevitably the ones who get sent off to war? Picture something so significant and grim acted out by mainly children. Makes one speculate about the rest of history.
No one I know, not me, my soldier-friend Joe, nor Vonnegut himself, can really compare to Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of this novel. He is the utterly hapless American soldier who begins to relive the events of his life after he becomes ‘unstuck in time.’ These events include the war, his career as an eye doctor, his unhappy marriage, later career as a conspiracy theorist, his death, and of course time spent with the Tralfamadorians.
This book can be classified as science fiction. The Tralfamadorians are the aliens who take notice of Pilgrim’s time traveling. This moving backward and forward through the years is not done in a machine, or in any way we’ve become accustomed to in sci-fi. Pilgrim’s traveling is more personal; he simply wakes up at different points in his life.
Though they abduct him, and place him in an alien zoo, these aliens also endeavor to teach Billy something. The substance of this lesson could be taken two ways, either as serious philosophy, or more gallows humor. Perhaps it is both.
When one begins to see things the way they do on Tralfamadore, one asks if there is any point in trying to change anything. Does anything we do matter? Is this nihilism? That’s up for debate, but if you read with an open mind, you may begin to look at your own life differently, and no matter what terrible things befall you, you may think twice before you despair.
On Tralfamadore, they can see how things really happen. Events in time occur simultaneously. My duty-dance went like this: even though I will die, I was quite alive in the past. I guess I shouldn’t fret, huh? I am always alive.
Or, maybe like this: I will read this book. I have read this book. I have always been reading this book.
When are you going to dance?
Slaughterhouse-Five was made into a movie in 1972. Next on my Vonnegut reading list is Mother Night.
(For anyone deeply concerned over whether or not I get my copy of Cat’s Cradle back, do note that I myself lost soldier-friend Joe’s copy of The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac in the depths of my closet. Even Steven.)