Friday, January 6, 2012
Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five
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.