Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1968)

The Vonnegut Project has been proposed by contributor Emily Dufton.  In this series, we will each review an agreed upon set of novels by Kurt Vonnegut.  The first entry is Slaughterhouse-Five.  

JACK: I first (and last) read Slaughterhouse-Five as a high school junior in the Katherine Brush library in one sitting.  I just took it off the shelf and sat down in one of those comfortable chairs they had and devoured it in a few hours.  I remember thinking it was hilarious and not really a novel.  It was my introduction to Vonnegut and a gateway to all of his other work.  It was easy to read.  Vonnegut's style (which he had not yet seemed to have fully formed in S-F), consisting of a few whimsical, ironically detached observations, punctuated by a closing punchline, immediately influenced my own writing.

Now I read it and look at it in my Kurt Vonnegut compilation and see it is only 110 pages.  It took much, much longer to read it this time, but that's not to say I was bored.  I do not think it is quite as amazing as I thought it was before, but I am still going to add it to the Best Books list because it is a classic and really should be read by everybody.  

Briefly, the book is about Billy Pilgrim, who becomes "unstuck" in time, and travels between experiences in his life.  The enveloping narrative concerns his experience in the bombing of Dresden near the end of the World War II.  This portion of the novel may read as straight autobiography.  Vonnegut inserts himself as one of the other soldier characters on the scene.  At one point he shows up as another character in an outhouse, taking a massive dump and screaming about how he is shitting his brains out.  

He also makes appearances at the beginning and end of the novel, writing as himself and about the book.  The novel is third-person and the main character is indisputably Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut breaks in as the "I" at a few random points.  This is one of the few "postmodern" qualities of the novel.       

EMILY: I agree with Jack; when I reread S-F a few weeks ago, it wasn’t quite what I remembered it being the first time. Back then, I was 15 and easily wowed. I hardly even noticed the book’s lack of traditional narrative structure, and it certainly didn’t bother me as I inhaled Vonnegut’s comical, cynical view of life. After I read S-F, “so it goes” entered my lexicon, and for years it never left. It still seems to me a pretty good way to view the world: a kind of existentialism-lite, one that recognizes our responsibility in the world, but also acknowledges the world’s lack of responsibility to us, and how the universe does what it will, with or without our acceptance or permission.

S-F wasn’t the first Vonnegut book I read. That was, for good or ill (good, I think) Slapstick, which Vonnegut himself gave a D when he graded his novels in Palm Sunday. (A funny aside: when looking up those grades in Palm Sunday, I saw that I had previously marked the page twice, first with a bent corner of the page, and then with a certificate of direct deposit from Drexel University dated 4/22/05. I worked as an administrative assistant in their art department for a few months at the time, and I was paid $12 an hour. After taxes, every two weeks I received $651.08, and somehow I lived.) Anyway, Slapstick was my first foray into the world of Vonnegut, and though I haven’t reread it (and probably never will), I still love that book because it introduced me to Kurt, and that was one of the most influential meetings of my teenage years.

From there I read basically the rest of the Vonnegut canon. I had posters and signed books and CDs, and I saw him give a commencement address at Lehigh University in 2005 (the same year I was being paid $650 every two weeks). I couldn’t have a conversation without bringing Vonnegut up, sometimes even citing the specific page of a book when a friend’s stray comment ventured too close to his language. I thought I was just a super fan, but, in retrospect, I was probably obnoxious.

Either way, in the years that have passed since I stopped reading Vonnegut (which ended, I’m pretty sure around 2005 - that year again!), I’ve thought about him a lot, especially when he passed away in 2007. But I never returned to his work. It seemed sacrilege because I knew that it wouldn’t mean as much to me now as it did then, and because I had grown cynical about his work too. By the time he died, he was repeating himself. Any new publication recycled previous work. Even his commencement address was a compendium of earlier thoughts; sitting in the stands of Lehigh’s football stadium, I could annotate his speech - “He took that quip from Book A, this quip from Book B” - and it bothered me. Vonnegut was no slouch: the man published 14 novels, five books of nonfiction, three short story collections, and five plays in a career that stretched over a half century. So it bothered me that he was recycling things. Wasn’t his fertile mind still creating new material? I realized I was mad at him because Vonnegut had grown old.

But he wasn’t all that old when he wrote S-F, at least not old in my opinion. Born in 1922, he published S-F in 1969, when he was 47 and the time was ripe for antiwar diatribes. Age is a major theme of S-F. In the opening scene, when Mary, the wife of Vonnegut’s old war buddy Bernard O’Hare, pounds on the table and denounces the war because “you were all just babies then,” she gives Vonnegut his subtitle, and his mission: to show how children fight old men’s wars, and they always have, and they always will.

This didn’t affect me when I first read the book at 15. Instead, every character was older than me, and, being older than me, they existed in that vague world of adulthood that seemed relentlessly similar. A 20-year-old was the same as a 40-year-old who was the same as a 60-year-old. Billy Pilgrim was 21 when he was drafted into the Army in the book, and 21 seemed a lifetime away from 15. Edgar Derby, at 40, was ancient in my eyes. But now I’ve reread it at 34, not 15, far closer to Derby’s age than any other character’s, and with a kid who may get drafted someday, if America continues to fight wars. This time I felt stronger horror at the things Pilgrim had seen, and greater horror at Derby’s pathetic death. These characters could no longer be lumped together as ageless “adults”; instead, they were my contemporaries, my colleagues, and children far younger than me. That was the first time I saw the real horror that S-F paints over, broadly, with humor and science-fiction. The survivors can laugh now, because otherwise they will cry.

I was thinking of addressing other things - Pilgrim’s strange relationship with Montana Wildhack, for example, who shows up, becomes pregnant with Pilgrim’s child, and we never see her again. Does she also become unstuck in time, or is she with the Tralfamadorians still today? Where is the baby? More importantly, how is the baby? (These are the things that interest me now as a 34-year-old mom.) But there are no answers here. Characters come and go, listing away, never to be heard from again, like Billy when he ventures through time and space, his feet blue in the cold basement or marching through German terrain.

Because there are no answers, there’s not much to say about that. Nor is there much original to say about much of Vonnegut’s major oeuvre. S-F is a well-known book, often a banned book, one that gave Vonnegut his name, and because of that (and on the decade anniversary of his death), his work is being revisited all over the place. There’s a new collection of all of his short stories, which I will not buy because I still don’t like how he recycled his own work. But this project - re-reading Vonnegut with Jack - is important to me because Vonnegut is still important to me, and S-F is still important to me, even if it didn’t impress me much when I read it again. And they’re important because of what S-F and Vonnegut meant to me, and still mean.

I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross the other day. She was interviewing the author John Le Carre, the spy novelist and former MI-5 operative who has lived a most extraordinary life. At the age of five Le Carre’s mother disappeared, and he was raised by his father, whom he called a compulsive liar, a man who was in and out of jail and sold arms to the mob to support his family. Rather than shielding young Le Carre from his work, however, his father demanded that John cover for him to keep him out of jail.

Gross asked Le Carre a question that stuck with me. She assumed that, because of his father’s untruthfulness, he was hardly an ethical authority. “How did you develop a moral compass with a father who had none?” she asked.

Le Carre paused a moment and seemed to laugh. He said that it was kind of her to suggest that he had developed one at all.

But then he went on to say that he was 85 years old, and it “took time” to find his moral center. He had met a lot of people, Le Carre said, and not all of them were nice. “But I think I got better. And that’s all there is to it,” he said. It took a while for him to get steady after sudden writing success, but he did -- with no real parents, with no real guidance, with no real “moral compass” instilled at any age.

And it’s that idea that brought me back to the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Like Le Carre, I had to develop a moral compass on my own: my mother was an alcoholic who struggled with mental health problems and left the family when I was 14. My father is magnificent and did what he could. But the work of developing my moral compass, without any explicit guidance from parents or authority figures or religious leaders or other caring adults who were closely associated with my life, fell almost entirely on Vonnegut, who taught me how to view the world. I loved, and still love, his wizened cynicism, dusted with his omnipresent faith in the human race. I loved, and still love, his humorous turns that come at the end of a devastating story. I loved, and still love, how he’s not really a very good writer, but he is a very good philosopher and a hell of a good person. I loved, and still love, Kurt Vonnegut, for all his merits and flaws, because without him, I would still be without a moral compass, still lost in an ethical void. And so I still love S-F too, in spite of, and because of, all its foibles and charms.

JACK: Returning now, I first wanted to comment on Emily’s review and say no, she was not obnoxious with her super-fandom of Vonnegut.  Far from it.  Every time she referenced Vonnegut in conversation, it was appreciated.  Referencing Vonnegut was never unappreciated by me, perhaps, because I was definitely a mini-superfan.  I’ve missed a few of his major works (Jailbird, Player Piano, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June--and I cannot find the self-grades to those in my copy of Palm Sunday, nor a pay-stub from 2005), but I’ve read everything else listed in Timequake, his final novel.  I also missed Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloon, and Bagambo Snuff Box, but I do not think Emily would consider those essential.  I have little recollection of Fates Worse Than Death, but I believe I read it at some point and thought it was pretty alright.  Regardless, Emily’s point about Slapstick holding a special place in her heart because it opened her to the rest of his oeuvre is trenchant.  This is the same way I feel about Slaughterhouse-Five, except in my case, the vast majority of the American literary public would cite S-F as one of his few true masterpieces.  Few would put Slapstick in the same category.  Yet both of these books showcase his style in a way that acts like catnip for a certain type of reader.  

I think in both of our cases, there was a waterfall of Vonnegut novels we read shortly thereafter.  The ones I remember being very good were Mother Night, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus, and Cat’s Cradle (my favorite).  Obviously Breakfast of Champions is another classic, but I felt it was sort of meaningless in a way that his other books didn’t seem to be (or “plotless”).  Welcome to the Monkey House has some of his best work, but it’s a short story collection, and while some of Vonnegut’s short fiction is utterly fantastic, he should be remembered most for his novels.  Many people consider The Sirens of Titan one of his masterpieces, but I did not read that until 2005, and it did not seem to hit me in the same way it did for others.  I remember thinking Bluebeard was pretty good (initially reading my friend Jay’s father’s copy from the basement of their cabin).  Timequake I felt was a fairly strong novel to end on.  He would go on to live and write for another 9 years or so, but as Emily pointed out, the quality of his work declined as he leaned on recycling previously unpublished (and published) material.  The new short story collection that I believe Emily referenced does feel to me, like a fair Vonnegut purchase (a nice Christmas gift idea perhaps…), but not for a person such as herself that actually owned the majority of his oeuvre.  

To get back onto the book itself, however, because we should be wary of trying the reader’s patience with too long of a review, I want to reflect for a minute on the matter of its being a satire.  Now there are several things that are often called “satire.”  One of them is Catch-22 and another is the book I’m currently reading (The Sellout).  Jonathan Swift is often called satire.  In fact, I took a course in satire in high school.  Welcome to the Monkey House  was on the syllabus, as was Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.  “The Simpsons” is often called satire.  All of these things tend to be an unrealistic portrayal of society, but in a way, end up being more real than real.  That is, they are more revealing of human nature and incisively honest than the majority of traditional storytelling tropes.  I started thinking about film adaptations of satires and reflected that they normally did not work very well.  I remember hearing that Catch-22 is a better movie than Slaughterhouse-Five (and note--does anyone know if the title has any relation to that literary antecedent satire on the subject of World War II?).  

I digress.  There are many numerous passages in this book, but it is best to discover them on your own.  I will just cite a highly personal one for me that I can find.  But before that, I also have to admit that, what initially stood out to me about this novel was its ending.  I think the ending is quite striking.  It’s the type of ending that feels incredibly perfect, like A Farewell to Arms.  Okay, it is no Farewell to Arms ending, but it is one of the most memorable things about the novel, in my opinion.  However, this time, I was most drawn to take a certain line from it.  

“The Germans sorted out the prisoners according to rank.  They put sergeants with sergeants, majors with majors, and so on.  A squad of full colonels was halted near Billy.  One of them had double pneumonia.  He had a high fever and vertigo.  As the railroad yard dipped and swooped around the colonel, he tried to hold himself steady by staring into Billy’s eyes.  
The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, ‘You one of my boys?’  This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men -- a lot of them children, actually.  Billy didn’t reply.  The question made no sense.
‘What was your outfit?’ said the colonel.  He coughed and coughed.  Every time he inhaled his lungs rattled like greasy paper bags.  
Billy couldn’t remember the outfit he was from.  
‘You from the Four-fifty-first?’  
‘Four-fifty-first what?’ said Billy.
There was a silence.  ‘Infantry regiment,’ said the colonel at last.  
‘Oh,’ said Billy Pilgrim.  
There was another long silence, with the colonel dying and dying, drowning where he stood.  And then he cried out wetly, ‘It’s me, boys!  It’s Wild Bob!’  That is what he had always wanted his troops to call him: ‘Wild Bob.”
None of the people who could hear him were actually from his regiment, except for Roland Weary, and Weary wasn’t listening.  All Weary could think of was the agony of his own feet.  
But the colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God that they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first.  He said that after the war he was going to have a regimental reunion in his home town, which was Cody, Wyoming.  He was going to barbecue whole steers.
He said all this while staring into Billy’s eyes.  He made the inside of poor Billy’s skull echo with balderdash.  ‘God be with you, boys!’ he said, and that echoed and echoed.  And then he said, ‘If you’re ever in Cody Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!’  
I was there.  So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O”Hare.” (42-43)

Later on, Billy Pilgrim is nervous about something (giving a speech I believe), and he remembers the line to help him feel better, and there is a sort of great comfort in the line.  Vonnegut has an excellent ear for this sort of thing, which I remember his displaying earlier here while discussing the origin of Billy’s name (and while I am searching for it, also allow me to express that the “unstuck in time” element to the novel makes it especially difficult remember which things were said or done at the beginning, middle or end of it):

“‘How come they call you Billy stead of William?’
‘Business reasons,’ said Billy.  That was true.  His father-in-law, who owned the Ilium School of Optometry, who had set Billy up in practice, was a genius in the field.  He told Billy to encourage people to call him Billy -- because it would stick in their memories.  It would also make him seem slightly magical, since there weren’t any other grown Billys around.  It also compelled people to think of him as a friend right away.” (33)    

In the meantime, I found a certain passage that I thought I might excerpt due to its personal familiarity to me geographically (Vonnegut also often wrote about Cape Cod and the northeast):

“The worst American body wasn’t Billy’s.  The worst body belonged to a car thief from Cicero, Illinois.  His name was Paul Lazzaro.  He was tiny, and not only were his bones and teeth rotten, but his skin was disgusting.  Lazzaro was polka-dotted all over with dime-sized scars.  He had had many plagues of boils.  
Lazzaro, too, had been on Roland Weary’s boxcar, and had given his word of honor to Weary that he would find some way to make Billy Pilgrim pay for Weary’s death.  He was looking around now, wondering which naked human being was Billy.
The naked Americans took their places under many showerheads along a white-tiled wall.  There were no faucets they could control.  They could only wait for whatever was coming.  Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted.  Reproduction was not the main business of the evening.” (50)

And I will end this review by mentioning, that, just by transcribing some of these passages I learned that as a fiction writer, you do not always need to write the word “asked” after a question mark.  (Note that I also wanted to excerpt the bit about the Shetland pony, but do not want to bloat this post any further.)  I think one of the chief virtues of Vonnegut is that by reading him, you are almost certain to become a better writer.  This may be an idiosyncratic assessment, but I would venture to guess that Emily would agree that reading Vonnegut at an impressionable age will make one a better writer, or at the very least, more interested in writing.

This has been the first installment of the Vonnegut Project.  
Next on the Project: Cat’s Cradle (publication target: January 2018)       

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