My Dad doesn’t like Slaughterhouse 5. He hasn’t read it; but he’s not going to let a technicality like that stand in the way of his anti-Vonnegut prejudices. You see, Dad’s somewhat of an authority on World War Two – scratch that – he’s probably THE authority on World War Two, and definitely MY authority on World War Two: the most accomplished autodidact I know. That which isn’t lurking in the immense depths of his knowledge is, frankly, not worth knowing about. But Dad is also a hard-edged historical positivist: he likes his facts, figures and fundamentals. For Dad, the representation of history necessitates the hard stuff: names, dates, places, manoeuvres, speeches and so on and so forth. If you know anything at all about Slaughterhouse 5, then you’ve probably already guessed where this is going.
What’s that you’re reading?
It’s a book called Slaughterhouse 5; it’s by a dead American guy called Kurt Vonnegut.
Never heard of him. What’s it about?
It’s an anti-war novel about the firebombing of Dresden.
That sounds good.
It is: it’s got time travelling aliens.
It’s got time travelling aliens.
Well now it just sounds stupid.
He found it difficult to write about war. I think he eventually decided that you can’t say anything intelligent on the subject of slaughter: so he opted for the absurd instead: you know; aliens and stuff.
Maybe he just wasn’t a very good writer. Primo Levi didn’t need aliens to write about war.
I guess I see your point. (I didn’t)
But if he writes about aliens, it’s not proper history is it?
He was there, and this is how he’s chosen to represent and make sense of his experiences: I don’t think a rigorous attention to fact is always the best way of representing personal history.
I see. (he didn’t)*
Subsequent conversations with Dad on the subject of SH5 were fruitless and short-lived. It seems our differing approaches to fiction have reached an impasse: I can just about see where he stands, and I can wave across the gulf – but any meaningful communication or agreement is utterly impossible. Our relative positions (get it?) are too remote. Now, whenever I mention SH5, I am met with the raised eyebrows of disdain; the ‘it’s all bullshit really’ facial expression usually reserved for aficionados of modern installation art. Or Glee.
Yup: 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 piss, 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, Slaughterhouse 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 bullshitty composite: ‘post-modern-sci-fi-anti-war-historical-biography’. Trending, moi? Surely not.
But this sense of tension is what makes Slaughterhouse 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’ whenever there’s mention of death, Vonnegut manages to simultaneously trivialise death while drawing attention to the sheer amount of it in the novel. It’s an effective stylistic tick; a kind of nascent fatalism that makes death both insignificant and ubiquitous.
Of course Slaughterhouse 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 Slaughterhouse 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.
Maybe Primo Levi should have had aliens after all.