Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: "Slaughterhouse-five" by Kurt Vonnegut

I could have sworn it was "Slaughterhouse-5," with a digit, but the Internet informs me that it's "Slaughterhouse-five," with the word.

So memory is a funny thing, as we see in Kurt Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical anti-war novel. Vonnegut, if you don't know, was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany in the waning days of World War II. He survived the Allied firebombing of that city and swore that he would one day write his "famous Dresden book" about the attack, which he considered the most important thing that had ever happened to him, after being born, getting married and having children.

Ordinarily, this is the sort of book that I would review during Banned Books Week, since it was one of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s. But Delacorte Press recently published a volume of Vonnegut's letters and essays, edited by Dan Wakefield, and selections from the book have been making the rounds on the Internet, putting me in the mood for Vonnegut's wit and humanity. If you've never read any Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse-five" (or "Cat's Cradle" if you prefer more traditional storytelling) is a good place to start. It combines Vonnegut's trademark deadpan humor with the surprisingly tender grasp of human frailty that made him one of America's greatest writers.

The firebombing of Dresden is the moral centerpiece of 1969's "Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death." The book, arguable Vonnegut's most famous and influential work, was nominated for a National Book Award, though as you can read for yourself in this 1969 New York Times book review, it's always struggled to claw its way out of the science fiction ghetto into its very deserved place in the ranks of serious literary satire.

The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is "unstuck in time." He never knows what part of his life he is going to experience next, and he lives in a perpetual state of anxiety, never knowing if he is going to walk through a door into the firebombing of Dresden or wake up naked in a zoo on the alien planet Tralfalmadore, where he is the main exhibit. The non-linear style of writing is one of the greatest strengths of the book, because we get to see scenes of absolute lunacy and utter weirdness juxtaposed with horrific scenes of war and human suffering. You've never realized how stupid and senseless war is until it's all jumbled up with flying saucers and aliens shaped like toilet plungers.

Vonnegut had a rare talent for taking huge, almost unfathomable ideas and breaking them down to the hard and simple nuggets of truth at their core. I think one of the comforting things about war is that it's so big and confusing that we can sometimes hide from its reality by convincing ourselves it's much for our puny human brains to comprehend. "Slaughterhouse-five" strips away all of that comforting confusion and forces us to understand and grapple with the worst aspects of humanity. There is nowhere to hide from this blazing torch of a novel.

Final grade is A. Recommended for first-time Vonnegut readers, and fans of satire, science fiction, politics, and peace. Not recommended for people who can't stand gore and bodily functions. There's no shame in that, I'm just warning you that there's a lot of diarrhea in this book.

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