Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Over forty years after its publication, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five persists as a bitter satire of the American experience during the middle of the 20th Century.  It is the story of a rather unremarkable man, Billy Pilgrim who led a seemingly uneventful life except for two things: he witnessed the allied bombing of Dresden, Germany on February 13, 1945 as an American POW and later on was abducted by strange aliens who live in the fourth dimension.  As a result, Billy is "unstuck in time," drifting in and out of various points of his life in an apparent random process.  One moment he is at New Years Eve Party as a middle aged man, then suddenly shifts back to Dresden.  This leaves Billy and the reader in an disoriented state.

The story is told in fragments, making the entire novel seem like a disjointed series of seemingly unconnected events.  The style is cinematic, with little plot or character exposition.  In the self referencing introduction, Vonnegut wrote the novel is a failure "because it was written on a pillar of salt."  It is about looking back on a traumatic experience and not finding any answers at all. As a result, this is a rather cruel novel.  The idea that awful things often happen with little or no explanation is a tough message to take, but its there.  Vonnegut's universe is an indifferent one.

As an anti-war novel, it is in step with the Vietnam-era, but not so much with today.  The novel's subtitle, The Children's Crusade, is an irreverent response to the glorification of the military ethos.  Billy's 'comrades' in the American army are overgrown sadistic children that thrive in the moral fog of war.  The generals are no better.  In a flash forward to the future, Billy shares a hospital room with an Air Force historian who argues the Dresden bombings were completely necessary for the Allied victory in Europe. Billy's own experience on the ground belies the historian's detached and inhumane argument.  For myself, this is the most memorable part of the novel.  It is a fascinating, but mccarbe phenomenon, to watch the flurry of memoirs that come out after every administration that attempt to justify their actions to history, often with false humility. For therein lies the power of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Prior to its publication, many were unaware of the Dresden bombings.  But the Second World War was such a massive event, that its memory was lost in the fog of war (just as the bombings of Tokyo are hardly remembered because of the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Perhaps traditional narrative fiction fails to capture the meaninglessness of total war and only speculative fiction can give one at least a sense of the madness.