Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I’m sure there are people who don’t like Vonnegut out there, but I don’t count myself as one of them. His amazing talent here is to spin a story where the narrator adopts a remarkable distance from the main character, but because the events described are at times so horrific, you have to wonder if being any closer would have made the book harder to stomach.

And that’s just the thing—the book is a breezy read, thanks to Vonnegut’s pairing down language to direct, uncomplicated prose. Instead of trying to impress on the reader the horror of war by graphic detail of gristle and arteries and greasy blood, he relies on an ingenious device: a questionable madness. He also relies on the Dada argument: if war makes sense, than nothing makes sense, so we should reflect that with nonsense. But Vonnegut isn’t about nonsense—he’s about abstracting an experience to a finer question: if the firebombing of Dresden makes sense, than it sure as hell makes sense that Billy Pilgrim can come unstuck in time, live in an alien zoo with a movie star, and know all about his own future and past.

It’s the madness of sanity: the only way to comprehend or process such a horrific experience is to abstract it and let it fragment your experience.

This is summed up beautifully by Vonnegut when Billy Pilgrim has some time to kill before being picked up by the aliens who are coming for him. He watches a war movie backward.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backward, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backward to join the formation.

The formation flew backward over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German Fighters came up again, made everything and everybody good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

My enjoyment rating: 90 outta 100

Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: October 9, 2005 12:50 PM
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