Kurt Vonnegut

When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, way back in the 1970s, I knew almost nothing about postmodernist novels and their importance as a development in literature.  As far as I was concerned, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel was like a complex mosaic, bits and pieces of a story with any semblance of a simple linear thread abandoned right from the start, as we jumped backwards and forwards in time, location, and between apparent reality and fantasy.  It was also unputdownable.  Not only was that true for me when I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, but it is also embedded in the book itself, with the disjointed fragments compelling you read on, as you had to know what was happening, what had happened and what would happen next.  I suppose you have already anticipated my next comment:  if you haven’t read the book, you should.  Really, you should.  I think it’s one of the great novels of the 20th Century, a powerful anti-war novel, a chilling yet sometimes hilarious mixture of science fiction and graphic writing, in large part based on the realities of the Second World War.

Before I go any further, perhaps I should step sideways at this point, and provide a little background on Kurt Vonnegut.  Born in Indianapolis in 1922, he was studying engineering at university, and enlisted in the US Army in 1943.  In late 1944, the German forces launched one last, huge offensive against the Allied forces in the Ardennes region of Belgium.  The battle, to become known as The Battle of the Bulge, was a huge and costly fight that lasted nearly seven weeks, with some 90,000 casualties on each side.  It was the largest battle fought by the US in the Second World War, the third largest in the country’s history.  Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the onslaught and was interned in Dresden.

He was there in February 1945, during the infamous three day bombing of the city, when more than 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices destroyed more than 1,600 acres (6.5km2) of the city centre.   An estimated 25,000 people were killed, although disputes still continue over the number.  During the bombing Vonnegut hid in a meat locker three stories underground, part of a slaughterhouse being used as a prison.  “It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around”, Vonnegut said in an interview in 1977. “When we came up the city was gone… They burnt the whole damn town down.”

After returning to the US, Vonnegut went back to university as a GI student, studying anthropology.  His dissertation was on the Ghost Dance phenomenon towards the end of the 19th Century, which would bring back the dead, and help the native American people stop the westward advance of the colonists and unite the tribes throughout the region, but it wasn’t finalised.  He left the university and started working as technical writer for General Electric.  Three years later, he resigned to become a full-time freelance writer.  In 1952 he published his first novel, Player Piano, a satire about automation.  To begin with his books sold in small numbers, but in 1963 he completed Cat’s Cradle, and suddenly became rather famous.

The structure of Cat’s Cradle was an indication of what would characterise all of his later novels.  It has a narrator, John, who wants to write about one of the fictional fathers of the atomic bomb, seeking to cover the scientist’s human side.  This scientist, Felix Hoenikker, has developed a second threat to mankind, ‘ice-nine’, a fatal poison, a strange liquid-like compound which was stable at room temperature, and more dense than liquid water.  When dropped in water it would sink, converting all the surrounding water into ice-nine.  Much of novel’s action takes place on a fictional Caribbean island, San Lorenzo, where John was researching a religion, Bokononism.  After all the oceans are converted to ice-nine, wiping out most of humankind, John wanders the frozen surface, seeking to save himself and to make sure that his story survives.  A complex but pointed critique of amoral science.

Six years later, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death appeared.  It describes in random order the life and experiences of Billy Pilgrim, including his early childhood, his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant during the Second World War and after, alongside chapters describing Billy’s occasional time traveling.  Among many other plots, the novel includes Billy’s capture by the German Army, and his survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.  Various critical commentaries have described Slaughterhouse-Five  as an example of ‘unmatched moral clarity’ and ‘one of the most enduring anti-war novels of all time’.

I can’t readily summarise the plot, but I can’t help trying!  There are various themes that are important to the action.  Billy is a poorly trained and disoriented American soldier who discovers that he does not like war.  He’s sent to the front line during the Battle of the Bulge and narrowly escapes death. Captured in 1944 by the Germans, he’s transported to Germany, and arrives in Dresden to work in a forced labour camp.  During the extensive allied bombing raids over the city, Billy and his fellow prisoners are held in an empty slaughterhouse (yes, it’s called Schlachthof-fünf, ‘slaughterhouse five’).  German guards hide with the prisoners in the underground section of the slaughterhouse and together are among the few survivors of the city centre firestorm.  Sounds familiar!  Back in the US,  Billy is hospitalized with PTSD symptoms and is introduced the novels of an obscure science fiction author, Kilgore Trout.  I hope you’re following!

On his wedding night in 1947, Billy is abducted by a flying saucer, and taken to a planet many light-years away from Earth called Tralfamadore. There, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome, an exhibit in a zoo; the dome representing a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians next abduct a pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack.  She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to re-live both past and future moments of his life.  In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash in Vermont.  He shares a hospital room with Professor Bertram Rumfoord, who is researching an official history of the war. They discuss the bombing of Dresden; the professor claims that the bombing of Dresden was justified despite the great loss of civilian lives and the complete destruction of the city.  Then Billy time-travels back to 1945 in Dresden. He eventually dies in the USA in 1976, at which point the United States has been partitioned into twenty separate countries and is attacked by China with thermonuclear weapons.  I hope you are keeping up with all this.

Guess what, there’s more!  One of his children, Robert Pilgrim, appears to be a typical troubled, middle-class boy.  He turns into an alcoholic when he’s 16, drops out of high school, and is arrested for vandalizing a Catholic cemetery.  As grows older he becomes obsessed with right-wing anti-communist views, to the point he changes from being a suburban adolescent rebel into becoming a Green Beret sergeant.  He goes to fight in the Vietnam War, and returns a decorated hero with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star.

If Vonnegut is the books ‘Narrator’, then Billy is clearly his alter ego.  Both confront the horror of war, the random nature of death, and the impact of increasingly horrific technologies.  Escaping bombs, whether they are conventional in 1945 or thermonuclear later in the book, it is always by chance.  Fatalism is another strong theme, especially for Billy who jumps between time periods, always knowing what will happen to him.  Some characters, like Kilgore Trout, reappear in other Vonnegut novels (Trout is central to The Breakfast of Champions, another postmodern novel dealing with free will, race relations and suicide).  Even the Tralfamadorians return in later novels, despite our being told in Slaughterhouse-Five they have revealed to Billy that the universe will be accidentally destroyed by one of their test pilots, and there is nothing they can do about it.  Alien technologies are as dangerous and as unpredictable as anything humans dream up!

Slaughterhouse-Five is an extraordinary book.  It welds together real events, wild science fiction, and a sustained critique of what people do to one another.  Forty years earlier, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, had offered an equally devastating critique of war.  Erich Remarque was German and had seen active service in World War One.  At the beginning of his book, Remarque writes, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”  It is a clear-eyed and depressing description of the conditions soldiers faced, documenting the monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the poorly trained young recruits (their limited skills ensuring they faced lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers.

In Remarque’s book the battles are not named and seem to have little overall significance, except for the possibility of injury or death.  They result in pitiful gains, some battles seeing them advance no more than the length of an average football field, gains only to be lost in later actions.  Remarque describes the surviving soldiers as old and ‘dead’, emotionally drained and shaken.  “We are not youth any longer.  We don’t want to take the world by storm.  We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life.  We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”  All Quiet on the Western Front will convince you there’s no need for another book about war:  it seems to say it all.

However, Slaughterhouse-Five does do more.  It puts the technology of war into sharper focus.  If Remarque wanted to convey how war destroyed soldiers mentally, not just physically, Vonnegut wanted to take the examination one step further.  By the time he was writing, technology had reached the point that soldiers were shaped and controlled by the impersonal technological systems of warfare, and not the other way around.  Remarque told us about the soldiers, but Vonnegut created characters and events to illustrate the impact of the bombs and weapons themselves.  Remarque wanted us to understand what war was like; Vonnegut wanted to make us recognise the complexity of reality, offering scenes and alternative perspectives, as if we were looking into a series of disconnected mirrors.

What is the allure of postmodernist writing?  Fiction had already undergone one big shock when modernism invade the territory, putting character’s interior lives and perspectives at the centre, and leaving the ‘story’ as the framework within which this examination took place.  It was an uncomfortable change.  Modernist literature emphasised fragmentation and extreme subjectivity, often presenting the reader with an insight into some kind of existential crisis.

However, while modernist authors sought to resolve or make sense of internal concerns and perspectives, postmodernists seemed to decide that the chaos around them was irresolvable.  As Vonnegut’s work amply demonstrated, the best approach was to ‘play’, offering multiple, often contradictory elements, within which the reader would wander.  Vonnegut was an exemplar of this approach, using irony, playfulness, black humour, pastiche, metafiction and magical realism, but all within a compelling zigzag narrative.

Slaughterhouse-Five appeared at a time of extraordinary experimentation in writing, journalism, film, and popular music.  Perhaps another of the vivid illustrations of what was happening was in Tom Wolfe’s work.  I’m not referring to The Bonfire of the Vanities, a wonderful and scathing depiction of Wall Street Greed, but in his two earlier  collections of articles and essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers in 1970.  Neither had the dizzying time shifts of Vonnegut’s novels, but they were both stunning.  In the first collection there were articles about the custom car culture, stock car racing and more, all told in an almost comic-book style, and the second was an ‘account’ of Leonard Bernstein hosting a party including Black Panther members, followed by a critique of the administration of welfare programs in San Francisco.  Funny yet devastating, very much Wolfe’s signature style.

Vonnegut has something of Wolfe’s nonfiction style but expands it.  Wolfe went on to adopt a more conventional novel writing approach.  Vonnegut chose to write his novels as collections of small pieces, brief experiences, each focused on a specific point in time.  He is reported as having said that his books “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.”  As you read Slaughterhouse-Five, it is clear that the non-fiction that runs under the surface of the book was driving the content, not just in some of the scenes, like the bombing of Dresden while prisoners of war were hiding in the slaughterhouse, but in his trying to make sense of war and explain its pointless horror.

How many more books will be written about the dehumanising and destructive nature of war?  Several, I suspect, because while we can read what Vonnegut or Remarque have to say, we remain insulated from the real effects.  Living at a comfortable distance from the events they describe, today we imagine war in the future will be about hi-tech drones, surgical strikes, and battles managed online by smart technologists safe in bunkers.  Cinema and television will present stories about extraordinary heroes saving people and destroying enemies with the latest firepower, but preferably doing so in some distant jungle or desert plain.  Danger at a safe distance.  As Vonnegut comments as various disasters occur in his book: “So it goes”.

There is a war on right now.  It pops up on our television screens in between news segments about new economic rationalist government, sexual predators and damaged lives, and the highs and lows of sport.  Once again, a major power (or so it sees itself) is out to crush a neighbour.  This time it is Russia and Ukraine.  It is the same kind of war that Remarque described, characterised by the same ‘monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the poorly trained young recruits (ensuring lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers.’  While Remarque focussed on the soldiers, on television today we can see the issues through the lives of the civilians trying to stay alive while the fighting continues.  Older men, women and children, the unfortunate ancillary victims of warfare.

What is striking is how little has changed.  Young men and women are sent to fight.  Many will die.  Despite the talk about drone warfare and surgical strikes, it is still a time of artillery, bombs and gunfire.  Civilians will die because technology is imperfect.  Civilians will die because they may be harbouring the enemy in their homes.  Civilians will die because their deaths are the incidental, unintended effects of war, or so we’re told.  Civilians will die; no, civilians aredying in wars right now.  Today we’re all living in the slaughterhouse.