Friday, June 01, 2007

"Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade" by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know. Now that may seem like a book that says BORING!!! but I'm here to tell you Slaughterhouse-Five is a very entertaining book.

Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time" and time travels back and forth to what seem like random points in his life. Most of the book is spent during World War II in which Billy is a harlequined prisoner of war. Forced to wear strange clothing to keep warm he may seem like a clown but Billy is one of the most fortunate, especially when he and other prisoner's are moved to Dresden just before the Allied firebombing of the "non-military" target. At the new camp which is a former slaughterhouse turned into a prison, Billy and the other prisoners have a pretty easy life as far as most horror stories of prisoners of war go. But once the Allies start firebombing then Hell is unleashed on Earth.

Ther are many other aspects of Billy Pilgrim's life that are worth noting, especially since he keeps time travelling back and forth between them. The night before his Daughter's wedding, which is also the night he is abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore. On Tralfamadore Billy is kept in a zoo where the Tralfamadorians can observe an Earth creature. They also teach Billy some important lessons on life. One being that all time exists at all times. A weird concept but let me try to further explain, the Tralfamadorians are not limited to 3D vision like us their visual skills are 4D. For example, they don't see the stars in the universe as a dot in space at one time but rather where that star exists at all times, so space looks like spaghetti strings of light. Also humans aren't 2 legged creatures but 8 legged with all the legs of youth through old age. "The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him imagine sex in the invisible dimension. They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals. There couldn't be babies without women over sixty-five years old. There could be babies without men over sixty-five. There couldn't be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth. And so on. It was gibberish to Billy."

So when something exists, it always has and always will. This also leads to the great saying by the Tralfamdorians "So it goes." "When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes'." This is said throughout the book anytime someone dies or death is mentioned. At some times in the book this is quite funny, like when some critics are discussing whether the "novel" as a literary form is dead. Even when the champagne is dead, So it goes.

Also on Tralfamadore, the aliens wish to see human reproduction in action and abduct a famous movie star Montana Wildhack, who was also known to do some "blue" movies. She seems to be the only one that knows Billy time travels, or rather is "unstuck in time."

One of the most profound anti-war statements is when Billy watches a war movie forward and backwards over and over. The bombs return to the planes and eventually are returned as various minerals back into the earth. And the bullets are sucked out of victims back into the guns.

While Vonnegut may say his books have no characters, this book is filled with some great ones. There's Kilgore Trout the science-fiction writer that appears in other Vonnegut novels. Trout may not be a good writer but his story ideas are superb. Billy's wife, Valencia Merble, Billy's heavyset wife and mother of Billy's two children. Billy remains rather distant from her. She dies of carbon monoxide poisoning following a car accident on her way to the hospital where her husband is sent after an airplane crash. She never appears without a candy bar in her mouth/hand. Edgar Derby, an older man who pulled strings to take part in the war. He is in the German POW camp with Lazarro and Billy. He is sentenced to death for stealing a teapot in the Dresden corpse mines and executed by a firing squad. Vonnegut considers his ignominious death high irony. His son is also a soldier. He is referred throughout the book as "Poor old Edgar Derby." Roland Weary,a weak man with dreams of grandeur who weakly 'saves' Billy multiple times (despite Billy's protests) in hopes for glory. This leads to their capture as well as the loss of their warm winter clothing and boots. Eventually Weary dies of gangrene while on the train to the camp, and blames Billy with his final words. Paul Lazzaro, another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois who hears Weary's dying words and eventually has Billy killed in revenge for the death of his friend Weary, many years after the war. He has a mental hit list and claims he can have anyone "killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses".

There are many more but let me tell you pick this book up and give it a read. You'll soon see why it is a classic. If you prefer audiobooks there is a great unabridged version read by Ethan Hawke.

No comments:

Post a Comment