13 Jun 2012

Slaughterhouse 5: a Review

I find it hard to even think of one adjective to sum up Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. His unique style, twinned with his potent messages, makes his absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five irresistible.

It introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man unstuck in time after he is abducted by Tralfamadorian aliens. In the book, the chronological order of events (the fabula) is manipulated, giving the reader a scrambled plot. This leads us to follow Billy through several events simultaneously, with the emphasis on his experience in World War Two: more specifically, the firebombing of Dresden and his experience as an American prisoner of war. In Vonnegut’s flexible concept of time, Billy could be dying in one paragraph and being born in the next; the events are so scrambled and each character is so humorous in the jumbled plot that the book is very enjoyable and deeply resonant.

Vonnegut writes:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.
There are no characters in the story because the event is what is important. The only reason we have Billy Pilgrim and other characters is because we, as readers, require the story to be populated to engage closely and comfortably with the jumbled series of events.

His style is, in my view, indescribably rare. There are, of course, elements that we can link to other books. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in World War Two into an eloquent, amusing protest against butchery in the service of authority. There are also traces that are analogous to another one of my favourite books, Birdsong, although Faulks does not engage in the comedy so willingly. The book boasts unique structure and uproarious antics, but its core in cold, hard, tragic fact gives it a potency that would make anyone think twice about the outrageous laugh about to burst from their lungs.
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?
Vonnegut attempts to write about the unspeakable horrors of war. However, he suggests that you cannot: the mind, when trying to draw on these horrors, will again suppress them and be diverted to other moments in life which are insignificant, simpler and easier to deal with. One cannot write about something that it is senseless, and Vonnegut suggests that Dresden and other similar bombings in history (such as Hiroshima, which he mentions) are indeed stupid and senseless. The madness of mankind permeates his novel.

Vonnegut’s short novel admits from the start that trying to tackle great questions about war and death is futile. Do not expect to find such an exploration of big themes, as you will be disappointed. However, it is through what he does not say that adds to the novel’s magic. You may perhaps achieve a better understanding, or at least a humbling exploration, of these key themes through Slaughterhouse 5’s triviality, which only hints at these issues in a comic, subtle way. These subtleties resonate in the mind like ripples on a lake, forcing us to question the Dresden bombing, and through that, larger themes.  For example, we should pay more attention to the apparently insignificant birdsong ‘poo-tee-weet?’ Because, as Vonnegut leads us to believe, this birdsong makes more sense in Slaughterhouse 5 than the unspeakable bloody horrors created by humans.
I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.This one’s a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.
So it goes.

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