Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

There are times when my tags are inadequate. Today, for example.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a classic, I think: it was for my generation, a book actually read by millions of Gen Xers as teens -- some because it was assigned in relatively progressive schools, but most because they actually wanted to read it. (It was short, and it had sex in it, and it was funny, and it was about war in a sarcastic way -- all those things appealed to teens then, and may do so still.) I've tagged it as "Literature" and "Science Fiction," even though it's mostly a very thin fictionalization of the author's own experience in Dresden during WWII.

As the first line says: "All this happened, more or less."

But there are space aliens in it -- that's what we used to call them. Maybe we still do. That makes it SF, right? And being famous and a classic About Something Big, well, that makes it Literature, too, right?

Categories are tough, sometimes. Especially with a writer as childishly humanist (or humanly childish) as Vonnegut.

Vonnegut mostly wrote discursive novels: books about a particular voice, and a group of characters.There are events, and they happen in a sequence, but his books were never very plotty. He didn't do villains, for one thing: some of his people were pretty rotten (Like Roland Weary, in this book), but he always told us why they were like that, and he was as sympathetic to them as to everyone else.

Vonnegut is one of the most sympathetic writers imaginable: not just existent, but imaginable.

For literary folks, that means writing about his books means talking about metaphor and themes and structure -- and there is plenty of that in Vonnegut, in those books that seem so discursive and free-flowing, plenty of connections that took hard work on his end. The SF reader, though, wants to know what happened.

Well, this: Billy Pilgrim went off to WWII. Was captured as a POW. Housed deep in a cellar in Dresden, just before an American bombing raid leveled that city and killed hundreds of thousands. Survived the war. Had a life afterward. Was kidnapped by space aliens decades later and put into their zoo as an exhibit, along with a much younger female porn actress. And died.

He didn't experience it in that order. Neither does the reader of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Because, again, it's not about that sequence of events. It's not about what Billy Pilgrim does. "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future."

That "among" kills me. Every time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about being born into a world where horrible things happen, where you can't stop the horrible things, and where the answer is...well, there's no answer. It just is.

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee," Vonnegut writes. I've never said that explicitly to my sons, but I hope I've made it clear.

Maybe I haven't. Maybe you haven't. There's a lot of people in the world today, fifty years after Slaughterhouse-Five, filled with satisfaction and glee by the news of massacres.

And concentration camps.

And horrible treatment of people unlike them.

And pain inflicted deliberately on people they don't like.

So it goes.

Vonnegut would not be surprised by 2019. The details would be different than any he was familiar with, but the general outline of cruelty, pointlessness, bureaucracy, and random horrors would be just what he expected.

That's why we read Slaughterhouse-Five. This is still our world. Vonnegut's voice is still crisp and clear and true, telling us things we should already know, in words we can't gainsay or argue with. That's the childish side of him: he was always able to say his complicated things in simple words, to make them searingly obvious, to repeat them so that we would never forget them.

So let me end with a quote from another Vonnegut novel, the one just before Slaughterhouse, 1968's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

We are all babies. There is only one rule. And we fail at it, every day in every way. So it goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment