I’ve written elsewhere on the mysterious process that is re-reading a novel. The experience ranges from a comforting stroll down memory lane, to the more common “I know I have read this, but for the life of me can’t remember a single thing about it”. Slaughterhouse 5 was for me definitely a re-read, and I had a dim recollection of the main elements of the plot, if you can call it that, but the primary experience was as close to a new read as makes no difference.
‘Slaughterhouse 5’ is a strange novel. It follows the life and times of time traveller, World War 2 survivor, and alien kidnapee, Billy Pilgrim. Billy experiences time as a continuum, and travels from point to point across it freely, making this an exceptionally fractured novel. “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever
.”Breaking that down into a “what happened” narrative requires the imposition of a more formal, chronological time scheme and would be misleading; there is a collection of events spread across time that is revealed to us, the reader, but only a limited attempt to present this in any sort of order. In a classic post modernist manner, Vonnegut explains “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. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters
.” On reflection, however, I think I may have overstated the impact of the fractured time scheme on the narrative flow of the novel – there is underneath all this jumping around in time nevertheless a reasonably steady progress of the central narrative, from Billy’s capture as a prisoner of war, his transport across Europe to Dresden, to the final horror of the fire-bombing.
There’s also an incongruous comic book silliness to much of the novel – at one point Billy is captured by aliens and displayed in a zoo, for example. However, the seriousness is never far away, giving the reader an unsettling experience of stepping from genre to genre in the space of a few lines.
The title of the novel refers to the refuge Vonnegut used to survive the Dresden firebombing of 1945. He unequivocally portrays this as an horrifying act of violence, but doesn’t take sides – the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the morality of the raids. He quotes the figure of 135,000 deaths in the raid, which was accepted, to a point, at the time, but is now know to be a politically motivated exaggeration of what was nevertheless a massacre. Had the Allies lost the war the Dresden raids would undoubtedly have been treated as war crimes. Some of the horror of this event is shown, but it is mainly mitigated by insistence of the philosophy at the heart of the book, that bad things are best not dwelt upon, as they are always going to have happened; far better to focus on the good. This is best summarised in the fatalistic chant of the novel, “So it goes”.
As a classic post modern meta-narrative, Slaughterhouse 5 is as much about the process of writing a novel as the events described. As is now quite common, but at the time was much more original, the book contains its own review:
“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”
Which is as good as a summary as I am going to find. One footnote – this novel contains a passing reference to “The Red Badge of Courage”, another American novel about war, and also one of the top 100 Guardian novels. So it goes.