08 June, 2008

'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut

An American man, Billy Pilgrim, who experienced the Dresden fire bombing of 1945 while a prisoner of war (incarcerated at the town's abbatoir in Slaughterhouse 5) is taken by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, who explain to him the infinity of time and allow him to travel back and forth through the events of his life. So it goes. This is the premise of Kurt Vonnegut's extraordinary, seminal novel from 1965.

Vonnegut himself witnessed the firestorm in Dresden. Tellingly, the first few pages of this novel are from a different narrator's perspective. It is clear that this work is in many ways autobiographical, notwithstanding the fact that so many of its strengths come from fictional techniques, most notably those borrowed from science fiction: time travel and alien life. The novel even features a character, Kilgore Trout, who is a frustrated science fiction writer, read almost exclusively by one of the casualties Billy meets in a war hospital.

The novel is extremely satirical, evoking the kind of black humour at the human condition and our preoccupations that is often only created through experience of war (cf Heller's Catch 22). When Billy meets the Tralfamadorians they explain that the human way of looking at time and events is the same as looking at the world through a tiny peephole. They understand that all things that will happen have happened, and when a Tralfamadorian sees a dead creature they know they have simply seen it at a bad moment, since it is simultaneously being born and living every moment of its life.

This concept forms a compelling contrast when it is set against the Dresden fire bombing. (Current historians put the death toll from this event at around 40,000, whereas Vonnegut reports it, as many did in the years after the event, at around 135,000.) Vonnegut employs the refrain 'so it goes' after every mention of someone's death. With World War II as a background for the story it is repeated often. It is most effective for the reader when they have read the refrain before they even realise that the narrator has just described a death: at such moments the Tralfamadorians' belief seems apt indeed.

Humour is slotted into the novel at various levels. The meetings and connections between many of the characters are improbable in our consciousness, but entirely likely to the Tralfamadorians. Having to explain notions in the book through the two perspectives provides ample opportunity to look at human pre-occupations and assumptions with a humourous intent. The zoo set up on the Tralfamdorian planet to house Billy and a porn-star imported from earth as his companion is a less-than-subtle poke at our race's obsession with superiority. One of Kilgour Trout's novels reinvents Jesus as a far less likeable guy, with fewer friends in 'high places', to prove the point that 'before you kill somebody' you should 'make absolutely sure he isn't well connected'.

Frequently, the action or purpose of a passage is filtered through several voices before it reaches the reader. In the above example the novel's narrator recounts what a character tells Billy about what he has read in a book. This technique could be interpreted in any number of ways. It invokes the mess of noise that surrounds so many people in their urban living; it reflects the crassness of the media and their distance from the purity of a story; it enunciates the difficulty in obtaining the truth of an event when every witness carries a different perspective. It is also the technique of someone unable to deal with an event in their past: many characters suspect this is Billy's problem when he pontificates on the existence of aliens, and many have paralleled this with Vonnegut and his difficulty in dealing with what he witnessed in the war.

The plot, with its multiple narrative voices, occasional full page illustrations, and science fiction techniques, is quite implausible. Yet it is set against a true event that, 60 years after taking place, has never been unequivocally explained. The themes of existence and meaning that permeate the book, however, are entirely relevant. These heavy themes are not buried beneath inaccessible prose, though there are undoubtedly many readers who find the novel too fractured to elicit any coherent message. Alternatively, however, one can see this as a novel devoid of artifice; one that, without becoming crass or overblown, disregards niceties and proprieties to tell a pure story.


  1. Oh man I love that book. One of the only modern novels I've read recently (I know, I'm a snob) and enjoyed.
    There are two points in the book where Vonnegut pushes everything aside, clears the clutter away and says "That was me. I said that" and I fucking love those parts. And to think, I would never have read the book if it hadn't been for Buffy.

  2. Glad to hear that we're of like minds on this one. I'm disappointed with myself for waiting this long to get to it. I'm with you, the layers of narrative were a brilliant technique. And the heads-up in the opening passage about how the story began and ended...poo-too-tweet.