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Book: Slaughterhouse Five (The Children’s Crusade)

October 22, 2010
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Let us once again worship at the altar of Kurt Vonnegut, peaceful author of war novels, absurdist writer of the most clear-headed ideas, plain-spoken man of elegant phrases. I do not read enough Vonnegut. His writing always brings me to tears — the way his words wind around and around and then cut straight to the truth.

The hard part about listening to audiobooks is that there are parts I’d like to quote, but I don’t have a copy of the book, and I can’t remember it well enough to look up the quotes on the Internet. But, oh well. It’s the impressions that matter most of all, yes?

I first read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. I distinctly remember sitting on the floor of the hall by my locker, reading this book, and also having Fahrenheit 451 in a small stack of books next to me. Two of my favorite teachers came by and commented to each other, “Oh, Slaughterhouse Five… do you remember reading that for the first time? And Bradbury…you’ve got quite a good stack there.” And they looked at me approvingly, and as if they looked forward to my impressions. All I remember from that reading was the phrase, “…so it goes…” and the impression that war is bad and senseless and absurd. Which, of course, it is. Even “good” wars, wars which “must” be fought, like World War II.

Slaughterhouse Five is the circular story of Billy Pilgrim, optometrist and unprepared soldier. He survives the horrors of war only to be captured by the peaceful Tralfamadoreans, who show him that there are many ways of looking at time. We experience time in a linear fashion. Tralfamadoreans see time in facets, as mountain ranges, as a series of moments which can be viewed and lived at any time. Thus, death is only a particular moment in time. You can go back to being alive, back to moments where you were alive, at any time. Death is a moment. So it goes. Billy does this — unconnected to being captured by aliens, he is also a time-traveler — and so his life becomes a tape which gets played in bits over and over, in pieces. He always knows what is going to happen. He has died many times, and will always die on the same day, at the same moment, just as he was always born on the same day, at the same moment. Tralfamadoreans laugh at the idea of free will. This was not presented as a particularly bad thing, as it also means you are free to relax since everything is always unfolding exactly as it should, as it will do, as it always has done.

The story is also Vonnegut’s story. He was in WWII, an infantryman, captured and taken to a work camp in Dresden, where he survived the American firebombing which wiped out the entire city. Billy Pilgram also survived the firestorm, and was put to work, as was Vonnegut, burying corpses after the destruction. Until, that is, they were unable to move the decaying corpses, and so incinerated them where they lay, in useless bomb shelters, burned to crisps.

Horrible. Unthinkable. Arguably unnecessary. War is full of atrocities.

Billy’s life is an endless circle, of going back and forth and around in time, and so the book follows this format as well. Still, it was never confusing, and always interesting, and also deeply moving. I love how Vonnegut tells his stories — on one level, the writing is so accessible, so straightforward, that you are never bogged down by overly florid sentences. However, on the next level down, the ideas and truths put on the page are so sharp and clear and heartrending (but never ever saccharine, never manipulative) that I listened with tears in my eyes to many of the passages.

It’s been growing for a couple of years now, but in the past few weeks I am left with the impression that the world in general and America in particular has lost its collective mind. I’ve always been against the current wars, but now with the senseless hate that is growing towards Muslims, gay people, conservatives, liberals, immigrants (Mexican in particular) — it’s really frightening. Everyone has someone to hate. This is terrible, terrible. I was so glad to read this book and to feel like I am not alone in feeling like it’s senseless, that we must be kind to each other, that we must stop looking at people as statistics and listening only to the extremists (at either end) shouting their nonsense. Nothing good can come from hate, and blame, and listening to fear-mongers. I am definitely on the liberal side of things, but I am against extremism in nearly any form, at least politically, and I think both sides have something valuable to share, but the way things are going right now — it’s really alarming.

The audiobook I listened to was read by Ethan Hawke. I’m still not sure what I think of this choice. I suppose he was a decent reader — however he read the entire book in this low almost-whisper, as if we were in a bunker together, and he was keeping his voice low, and measured. Maybe that was the point. At some places, it worked well. At others, I was annoyed by it. I was also annoyed by his (infrequent) mispronunciations or odd enunciations of names and words. But, he was a decent reader and by the end I was so used to his whispery voice that it seemed alright.

I cried at parts, driving down the freeway. The destruction. The humiliations. The simple human suffering — but as I said, never sentimentalized, never manipulated to produce tears in the reader. Always the straight truth of the character, or of Vonnegut himself. My heart reacted instinctively, reaching out, seeing the clarity.

At the end of the book, there was an odd little conversation between Vonnegut and his idiotic lawyer (?). Vonnegut sounds like a wonderful, crotchety old man, rasping his way through the conversation, making strong points with well-chosen words. His friend blubbered along, trailing off mid-sentence, making obvious points, laughing at odd times. It was a weird thing to include, although I liked hearing what Vonnegut had to say.

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.

Then there was a short trip-hop music segment overlaying Vonnegut himself reading the passage about Billy watching the war movie in reverse, as bombs were packed away and people miraculously mended and brought back to life, as minerals were buried deep in the ground so they could never hurt anyone ever again. This was also slightly bizarre.

I feel some more Vonnegut reading must happen soon. Maybe one of his funnier novels.

I am now listening to Fahrenheit 451, which for some reason is always linked in my mind as the companion volume to Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe I think the titles go well together. Anyway, the reader on this audiobook sounds like a robot. It’s a little disturbing. I’m sucked into the story now, though, so I guess I’ll finish it, although I’m tempted to find another version because I find the reader’s voice so discomfiting.

Here’s one more quote from Mr. Vonnegut, which sums it all up for me.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2010 5:16 pm

    this was a really, really good review.

    can you believe ive never read any vonnegut? never had to for school and just never gotten around to it as an adult.

    • October 24, 2010 7:38 pm

      You should try this one, or Mother Night. So freaking good.

  2. October 22, 2010 5:17 pm

    I’ve never read a Vonnegut book. And that is all kinds of wrong.

  3. October 27, 2010 6:02 pm

    let’s talk… I read a lot of KV whenI was in HS which means i really need to reread some. if I remember correctly, Cat’s Cradle was/is my fave. Shall we read together?!
    You are right… Have we lost our minds?! Gotta love campaign season.

    • October 28, 2010 11:24 am

      I’m in! I must have read Cat’s Cradle but it was loooooooooooooooong ago.

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