Discussing: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
THE BLURB (from The Paperback Club)
Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world’s great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.
THE BLURB (from Google Books)
Vonnegut’s wildly imaginative, witty and affecting novel tells Billy Pilgrim’s story in just that fashion. It spins back and forth through time, layering in the elements of Billy’s life, which begins, chronologically, in 1922 in the upstate New York town of Ilium, and ends over 50 years later, when he is a successful middle-class optometrist with a wife and two grown children. Like Vonnegut himself, Billy was a World War II draftee and a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Allies firebombed the city early in 1945. All of these facts are significant, and the novel emerges as a powerful anti-war.
We ended up going forward and back on a number of different tangents, so this has been a particularly tricky one to write up.
So it goes.
This book made many of us feel as though we were at home, in the middle of the night, drunk as a skunk, watching a film backwards.
The non-linear narrative flow is sort of mesmerising. You cant help but be trapped in the sticky mire. Unusually, almost everyone enjoyed the experience!
It all starts very well. An author – granted a somewhat idiosyncratic one – writes about his attempts to depict accurately the memories of the soldiers of the Dresden campaign – a sort of definitive guide to that event. So far so great. I for one was thrilled at the instant tension between the author and his friend’s wife.
Then it all changed dramatically. A whole new protagonist…well…more of an observer really appears in the form of Billy Pilgrim. We are taken on a quick journey of his life and discover three things about him. Billy is not the most interesting creation in fiction. He is also frequently abducted by aliens. Oh and he regularly travels through time, space and the universe at large.
His story is therefore woven along two time lines – each one a reverse of the other.
(I don’t know whether it was a symptom of the book itself, or the piano playing in the pub, or just the way the night was going but our conversation became as surreal and frantic as the book itself. I have 8 pages of notes to work off. I’ll do my best to keep this brief.)
We discussed the war – the way it’s depicted; the repercussions for the primary character and those of soldiers around him. We went from post-traumatic stress disorder to Vietnam, to the Gulf to the current day conflict.
We spent a little while discussing the brief moment that the author appears in Billy’s story – as the soldier who had the runs(!) and found it hilarious that Kilroy Trout actually has produced a book. We assume that it’s not the fictional character but who knows! Where Vonnegut dances; though angels fear to tread; we seemed to willingly follow.
The way each character was portrayed seemed to be very significant and we tried to perceive some of them from different perspectives with varying results. This seemed to be of especial importance with regards to Billy’s wife and daughter. Their behaviour was so We also particularly enjoyed the scenes with the actress and the coincidences revealed in the porn shop.
Obviously we dwelled on the ‘unstuck in time’ concept for some time. It’s a great idea – certainly here most uniquely presented. Seeing everything as occurring everywhere, all at once, is rather exhilarating. From there we naturally wandered into the lands of ancient Greek philosophy (I know, it doesn’t sound like us either!) – everything is already there. Then it was only a short leap away from 4th dimensionality and back this time to Homer’s ideology. Comparing and contrasting with the present day.
On the whole, this was an unexpectedly amusing book. Not unexpected in that we didn’t expect it to be – more that we didn’t expect it to be funny in the way that it was. Macabre, deeply weird and told with an unashamed bias (for the authors own perspective); this book embraces all those aspects of war often left out of narratives as they are regarded as taking from the nobility of those engaged with fighting for freedom. The author seemed to relish the fact that there was no dignity throughout any of the characters lives – a trait especially prevalent in the more-frequent-than-you’d-expect-even-with-it-being-a-‘war’-book death scenes. The death of Billy’s wife is particularly grotesque and yet almost heroic. Far more so than with the majority of the soldiers.
Another of us mused that – while not an expert on modernism – she felt that this book was a part of that movement. It starts with a disruption, then creation emerges out of terrible events. This felt like a new way of telling stories, with intangible ways of looking at the war. We really enjoyed the way something that large was depicted here. There is a certain fatalism that leeches through. All the events have been and will be again. What’s a person to do?
This led naturally enough to the idea stressed in the book that ‘free will’ is a human construct and what that means in terms of our own lives. We also noted a palpable lack of guilt – Billy for example goes through his post-war life with a quiet certainty that all things are: right now: everywhere. That is beautifully realized no one disputed but it was also terribly difficult to relate too.
Time began to escape us so we only briefly considered whether there was a gender bias throughout the novel and reflected on the honesty between the courting of Billy and his eventual missus – finding something strangely romantic in their ability to accept each other as they are, requiring no changes.
We would recommend this book to others, but not blindly. A lot of people would find the narrative to be nonsensical or sea-sick inducing. For anyone who prefer straightforward linear tales; I’d avoid this like a plague. Similarly, the difficulties in relating to any of the characters would provide another block for a lot of even the most enthusiastic readers.
One member in particular found the story particularly hard work after the ‘leap’ and definitely wouldn’t read it again.
The repetitive phrase that runs throughout the book (106 times according to wikipedia) ‘So it goes’ was in constant use during our conversation. And boy did that never get old.
Not at all.
Actual suggestion was Rocky Road with marshmallows.