Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review of Slaughterhouse Five

No doubt about it, Vonnegut is an extremely talented writer who knows how to bolt a reader’s butt to the seat. He’s intelligent enough to know that other intelligent people don’t want the same old thing written in the same old way. In Slaughterhouse Five our boy Kurt keeps things fresh and moving the whole way. It is a spellbinding display of creativity, facetiousness, profundity, and meta-storytelling. He plays with writing the way the Globetrotters (are they still around?) play basketball: he makes a circus out of the things that other people take WAY too seriously. Why does he do this? Because he can. This guy may never have followed with gusto the ‘Robert’s Rules Of Order: Writer’s Edition’, partly because he sees that rules are, from the very beginning, all just a big joke. Then again, he doesn’t give the impression that he doesn’t understand the rules, but rather that he has out-grown them. It’s as if he had played within the archaisms of traditionally structured fiction/non-fiction for far too long, and was ready to create something new.

His characters are unpredictable and the plot is sci-fi mixed with some of his own biography. Vonnegut was writing loosely about his experiences in WWII prison camps and about the fire-bombing of Dresden (which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together), but he was also writing what he felt and thought, as if his haphazard thoughts were actual events (beyond stream-of-thought), contorting characters into hysterics that made you want to weep in one paragraph, and laugh in the next. Sometimes, he included bland factual information, definitions even, to make it all feel as authentic and pointless as life itself sometimes is experienced. In this aspect his genius is especially showcased. He understood that stories are artificial re-structuring of events that were initially manifested as meaningless or inhumane accidents—inhumane in the sense that human beings are not announced in the mundane as the center of the mystery of life, and may not even be a clue to life’s meaning. Histories and ‘nonfiction’ are posthumous renderings of happenings that had no storyteller there to say how to process it for food or hope, and they recreate an angle from which to view events as if there were spectators and stadium seating all along. At the beginning of the book he writes:

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.”

Fear, suffering, and death do not have narrators, only stories do. And stories are not lived, they are told after they are all dead and gone (a la Sartre). Vonnegut senses this disjunction between what we live and what we tell, and attempts to imitate the feelings of live living in a disjointed, discursive, personal-impersonal style that is fun and engaging.

The whole idea of time-travel and aliens (Tralfamadorians) frees the author up to pull just about any literary stunt legally. It’s his way of saying, “Let me tell the story how I want to tell it. If it helps, just pretend the protagonist could time travel and was abducted by aliens at some point.” I love how the Tralfamadorians were so entertained by human perspective. They helped Billy understand how precious life was—how precious his life was—even to the extent of upending his idea of body-image.

“Most Tralfamadorians had no way of knowing Billy’s body and face were not beautiful. They supposed that he was a splendid specimen. This had a pleasant effect on Billy, who began to enjoy his body for the first time.”

They also explained to Billy that humanity’s provincial viewpoint is like looking at a landscape through a long, narrow pipe which is fastened to a train moving continually, never backing up, showing people like Billy only part of the whole picture in a constantly shifting, miniature window to the world. This is how Vonnegut probably conceives of time and the limited scope of human understanding. Sounds about right to me. Though, if these aliens are metaphors for a broader perspective, Vonnegut's not doing a good job of following their advice, and I think for good reason. He writes, "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre," and later, "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones"; but apparently 'think nice thoughts' isn't as convincing practically as it sounds rhetorically. How do I know?  Because Vonnegut wrote a book about the fire-bombing of Dresden. Microphone dropped. 

I loved the ‘Vonuguttian’ spin on characters and events throughout history, and especially his view of Jesus.

“So the people [first century Jews/Rome] amused themselves one day by nailing [Jesus] to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was. And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”

But, he also criticized Christians’ taking their story too far and implying it is sad when people like Jesus are tortured and killed, as if it’s not sad when it happens to normal people.

“The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again: Oh, boy—they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time! And that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.”

It became evident as I became more fully acquainted with Vonnegut’s style that he has no clue about what the human race is supposed to be or do. His anticlimactic tag after every reference to death, “And so it goes”, which probably appeared some fifty times in the book, along with Billy’s multiple responses of “Um” to awkward and inexplicable moments in life, was hilarious, and  are probably a rich commentary on Vonnegut’s coping mechanisms. He’s more a critic than a leader, and maybe that’s okay. He is a modern Socrates who does not have the answers, but who dares to ask the questions. Of course, with these types, they have to be careful not to suddenly slip into a ‘the-answer-is-obvious-you-stupid-bastard’ sort of tantrums that can characterize careless cynicism. Cynics have to remember that they have chosen their path by committing to backing the discussion up away from ‘easy answerism’ and fundamentalist moralizing towards a ‘there-are-no-answers’ or ‘the-answers-aren’t-so-simple’ modus operandi. It irks me when they suddenly switch methods because they are frustrated they can’t say anything in the absolute, and it can quickly devolve into name-calling. Unfortunately I see it happening in this book with the characters, sometimes stumbling from scene to scene as Fortune’s flute, announcing their utter lack of power and responsibility against the forces of nature, and at other times griping about the treatment of some person or some leader that is hurtful, as if there is such a thing as an ‘ought’ or choice people have in the matter. He swings from recounting, I’m assuming with disapproval, the horrors of humans inflicting pain on each other, and criticizing American capitalism with biting words (“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops”); to stoic and even nihilistic statements like ““It was all right,” said Billy. “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does,”” and, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”

So which is it Vonnegut? ‘Dem ivory towers look awful pretty, but you can’t pick and choose when you want to fight and when you want to hang back in the safety of passivism.  That’s called a hit-and-run. The copout of intermittent skepticism, mixed generously with sudden outbreaks of moral superiority, can make a reader motion sick. However, as obnoxious as I personally found this wavering, and as conflicted as I was about how seriously to take his message, by the end of the book I felt that Vonnegut had done a swell thing in writing it, perhaps in spite of himself. He’s a dying man watching dying men, telling them this is the way it has to be, but everything is going to be alright. On one hand, I’d rather not see people give up so easily; but on the other hand, he didn’t have to call out encouragement, however cloaked in passivism and resignation, to his brothers and sisters. I think, in the end, he’s one of the good guys. And a great writer. And if it is a moral train-wreck, it was fun to watch.

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