Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Classics Project: Slaughterhouse Five

Before I get into the heart of my review, let me say a quick apology. I'm sorry my first entry in the Classics Project didn't come until half way through February. I actually didn't even start reading one of the books on my list until a few days ago because I was still hung up on Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time (blog post to follow). But I finally got around to it and, so far, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

The first book I decided to read was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

My mother has always loved Vonnegut because, as she often says, he writes just a little to the left of reality. This is one of those books that I am honestly surprised I haven't read already. How did I miss him when I was picking up my mother's love of Ray Bradbury and Heinlein? Now this book isn't general classified as "science fiction," but that's what the tone of wonder and awareness reminds me of. Also the aliens, but I'll get to them in a bit.

In many ways, I think Kurt Vonnegut's life must have felt a little to the left of reality. At the age of 23, he was captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, arguably one of the deadliest targeting of civilians in World War II. I think this must have given him a unique perspective both on death and on life.

Slaughterhouse Five starts out with a narrator (that is never directly identified as Vonnegut himself, only heavily implied) describing his journey and his decision to write a book about Dresden. While it appears that the narrator is the main character, in chapter two the book switches abruptly from first person POV to third. As it turns out, the narrator is only watching the story unfold. 

In truth, Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, himself a prisoner of war and a witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden. But in a way, that is only window dressing. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He flits between moments of his life at random, jumping from the war to his wedding to his senility as an old man, back and forth and all moments in-between. From what I've heard, this makes it difficult for some readers to follow, but I had no problems.

At its core, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war book. Not because the author condemns the soldiers or the generals or the civilians at home. In the very first chapter the book announces itself a failure because “nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre.” So it doesn’t even try. It skirts around the bombing in a surprisingly elegant, though at times sporadic, dance of moments and thoughts and strangeness.  

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this book is not its schizophrenic structure, but it's delving into the fantastical. At one point in his life, Billy believes he is abducted by aliens and taken to live in a zoo where he is given a missing adult film star as his mate. The planet's name is Tralfamadore. The reader experiences Billy's time on Tralfamadore as vividly as the bombed out wreckage of Dresden. There he learns that each moment exists forever. That when someone dies, they are only dead in that moment and there are plenty of moments before where they are not.

I think this is integral to the book. Aside from being arguably the entire point, I feel it justifies the structure. Slaughterhouse Five is not a long book, but I felt no urgency when reading it. It wasn’t an edge-of-your-seat kind of book. I had almost no interest in what happened next, but I loved reading it. I loved each individual moment in the book which to me felt whole and satisfying on its own. It made me take notice of each word in a way that I am not generally so aware. In many ways this creates an attitude of inevitability, that what is has been and will always be, because the moment exists forever. Children will always go to war and be killed. Humans will always look for answers and be disappointed.

One subtlety that appears near the end is the question of whether or not this is all real. This question is not asked directly, and Billy Pilgrim never once doubts his extraterrestrial experiences, but then we, the readers, see aspects of his visions pop up in the work of a second rate scifi author. Did Billy really get kidnapped by aliens? Did he really live in a zoo on Tralfamadore? Or is all of that just a delusion caused by the trauma of witnessing a massacre? Does that make his experiences any less real?

And then it was over. The ending as strange, as startling, as disturbing, as enjoyable as the rest of the book had been. So it goes. 

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