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This review is from: Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-dance with Death (Paperback)
SH5 is weird stuff. I readily admit that I struggled though the first 100 pages: really struggled. In modern parlance (for you kids), I suppose you could say that I just didn't `get' it. My recent experiences of historical fiction have all been of the middle-brow, naturalistic persuasion; so when I encountered aliens, time travel and intergalactic zoos in what self-purports to be a serious anti-war novel (Vonnegut's perambulatory opening is explicit that anti-war is his narrative agenda), I was confused to say the least. Are you taking the Michael, Vonnegut?
Well, it turns out that he is. At least in part. By writing about aliens and time travel in a WWII war novel, Vonnegut highlights the difficulty and absurdity of trying to capture something as ungraspable and nonsensical as massacre. Big question: `how do you indentify with the deaths of 24,000 people?' Answer: `You can't'. Solution: `write about aliens instead'. Okay, so that's a gross over-simplification; SH5 is much more than an exercise in absurdism, but satire definitely runs rampant through the novel: Vonnegut's frequent assertion that wars are fought by children who don't know what's going on is funny and disturbing in equal measure.
After being abducted by aliens from `Tralfamadore', soldier Billy Pilgrim comes `unstuck' in time, and randomly lives (and re-lives) events from his past and future. Thus he is forced to live through his death, the Dresden bombings, his childhood etc. over and over. This fractured understanding of time is echoed in the book's non-linear narrative construction - the reader even sees Pilgrim's death somewhere towards the middle of the book. It's an unnerving reading experience: in most historical fiction, the reader has an information advantage over the characters: but SH5 is dramatic irony turned on its head, as right from the off Billy Pilgrim knows how his entire future will play-out; after all, he's been there and seen it.
And an eccentric characterology is one of the novel's most appealing and successful aspects. Roland Weary is a knife-obsessed, über-violent jingoist; Kilgore Trout (star protagonist of other Vonnegut heavy-hitter Breakfast of Champions) is a detached and run-down science-fiction writer, hilariously comfortable with his own lack of success. And then there's Howard Campbell (jr), an American pro-Nazi propagandist and playwright whose vein-bursting fascist tensions are a delight to read.
With zany characters, non-linear narrative structure, alien abductions and an anti-war agenda, Slaughter House 5 is a book that slips and slides uncomfortably between genre spaces. Unfortunately, we still live in a comparative dark age of genre criticism, wherein the moniker `science fiction' is often used as a trivial dismissive. If the sci-fi label didn't carry such critical baggage, I'd be tempted to tag SH5 as such. Ultimately, any attempt to pigeon-hole the novel would be futile and reductive: my best effort would be the somewhat meaningless composite: `post-modern-sci-fi-anti-war-historical-biography'. Trending, moi? Surely not.
But this sense of tension is what makes Slaughter House 5 so brilliant. Vonnegut's wry manipulations of memory and invention keep things interesting, and the novel's deceptively simplistic lexicon makes SH5 a quick book to read. Yet some tensions in the novel are alarmingly harrowing. The constant use of the refrain `so it goes' whenever the subject of death is raised becomes a double-edged sword for the reader, and marked my reading experience with an unsettling cognitive dissonance. By commenting `so it goes', Vonnegut manages to simultaneously trivialise death while drawing attention to the sheer amount of it in the novel. It's an effectively uncomfortable dualism; a kind of nascent fatalism that makes death both insignificant and ubiquitous.
Of course Slaughter House 5 enjoys a plurality of interpretations. I suppose Billy Pilgrim's forced time-travel back to the Dresden bombing could be seen as a metaphor for the flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Readers wanting to play-down the novel's post-modern leanings could even crowbar a naturalistic interpretation into the text by asserting that Pilgrim's extra-terrestrial experiences are entirely psychosomatic; after all, he doesn't tell anybody about them until after he suffers a horrific head injury. This isn't how I view things: I'm just throwing it out there as an interpretive alternative.
I love Slaughter House 5; its mix of satire and seriousness creates a tension that really hammers-home Vonnegut's message about the pointlessness, horror and most of all the nonsensical nature of massacre. The horrific and the hilarious are strange bedfellows, but here they marry nicely and things just... work. There's a striking sequence in which Billy Pilgrim watches a war film backwards: explosions and fires are sucked back into shell casings, buildings re-assemble from rubble, blood flows retroactively and wounds heal until they, literally, never were. It's beautiful.