Kurt’s War on War
Vonnegut waged a funny crusade against violence.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
"Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, a Duty Dance With Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much), Who as an American Infantry Scout Hors De Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Firebombing of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where The Flying Saucers Come From.”
When Vonnegut’s masterpiece appeared in 1969, this text on the title page announced the book, and also its author, as a new kind of thing in the literary world. The juxtaposition of violence and humor had long been a staple of satire, but still, there was something odd about this casual note that this “Duty Dance With Death” (huh?) was written by a guy who smokes too much; something disturbing about this breezy, touristy reference to the biggest massacre in human history (in which 135,000 civilians perished—almost twice the number that died at Hiroshima).
HE CHANGED THE WAY A NATION READ, AND HELPED CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK.
The book is far stranger than the title page could have possibly predicted. It begins with an autobiographical chapter in which Vonnegut describes a real-world nightmare: Following the Dresden bombing, he and his fellow prisoners were given the task of digging the bodies of the victims out from under the rubble. He explains, in this chapter, that he has struggled to find a way to tell this story. And from there, Slaughterhouse Five leaves the real world far behind.
What follows is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former POW haunted by scenes burned into his memory during the war.
A big piece of the book relates the horrors that its author witnessed at Dresden, and presents a kind of a treatise on this monstrous moment, as well as a meditation on the brutal absurdity of war. But it also happens that Billy Pilgrim has become ‘’unstuck in time,’’ and finds himself ricocheting among various moments of his life, in no particular order. On one page he is in Illium, New York, making eyeglasses, and on the next he is in Dresden, wrestling with a corpse.
And then we learn that our hero has been kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken through a time warp to the planet Tralfamadore, where, among myriad adventures, he encounters a movie star named Montana Wildhack. The Tralfamadorians (who are 24 inches tall and green, with suctions cups for feet) teach Billy Pilgrim that time is a continuum—that the past, present and future always exist.
All of this psychedelic philosophizing and time-jumping and plot-twisting and imaginative leaping might have produced a work that is just too much to take. But in his long struggle to find a way to tell his devastating story, Vonnegut apparently hit upon a good idea—he made it funny. Slaughterhouse Five—part war story, part science fiction, is also, best of all, a dark-black comedy.
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When it was released, at the height of the Vietnam War, Slaughterhouse Five’s profound anti-war message was considered radical. Looking back, the book’s abandonment of narrative was a bigger revolution, as was its fantastic disregard for the laws of nature. Reality itself, in Vonnegut’s playful hands, was not a rigid absolute; the universe he created was malleable, flexible.
Vonnegut may have had a political motive for choosing to unstick his story from chronology; one critic has suggested that he did so to demonstrate the insanity of history, by creating “a form that, while providing the reader with an intelligible account, does not appear to rationalize the events.”
It is possible, though, that the target of Vonnegut’s revolt was even deeper. Way before Slaughterhouse Five, he was already creating a new brand of literature that ultimately changed the way our nation read, and helped change the way we think. His earlier books were ignored by critics who considered them low-brow pulp, and shunned by commercial publishers as being too weird. Some of them are now so beloved that they are widely taught in high schools.
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“All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” So begins 1963’s Cat’s Cradle, a fantasy-satire about the end of the world. On the way to Armageddon (which is brought about by “Ice-9,” a substance that causes all of the water on Earth to freeze), Vonnegut introduces a made-up language that is brilliant and silly, a religion both profound and ridiculous, and a world at once frightening and familiar. And like all of the 19 books that he wrote over a career that spanned half a century and ended two weeks ago, Cat’s Cradle is hilarious.
That was Kurt Vonnegut’s singular gift: He allowed us to look at the ugliest, scariest truths of our times—and laugh.