Tuesday, August 25, 2009

221. Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

History: Published in 1969, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five, apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled", because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. The story proper begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, of Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.
Plot: Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist that married his bosses daughter, and they have a daughter and son. He is in a plane wreck in which he is the only surviver, and is severely injured in a coma. His wife dies before he is conscious. In WWII he is aChaplain's Assistant, a disoriented, ill-trained American soldier, and is captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans imprison him and other PoWs in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. PoWs and guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm.
For unexplained reasons, Billy has come "unstuck in time." He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with movie star Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They believe they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the correctness of their theories.
Billy travels forward and back in time, reliving occasions of his life, real and fantastic. He spends time on Tralfamadore; in Dresden; in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture; in his post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s; and in the moment of his murder.
Billy's death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character who constantly chastizes him for his lack of enthusiasm toward war. At their capture, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs. In his deathbed, Weary managed to convince Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life". Time-traveler Billy, already knows where, when, and how he will be killed: Paul Lazzaro hires someone to shoot him after a speech in a balkanized United States on February 13, 1976.
Review: I listened to this on the way back from NYC. The narrator was Ethan Hawke, who is a terrible actor, but did a good job of narrating. A dark Kurt Vonnegut, but very good. I like it that the book takes an anti war slightly political slant. Vonnegut also manages to put a human face on the tragedy at Dresden and expose one of World War II's darker moments to the general public in an accessible form.
While the fragmented nature of time in the novel is largely a thematic device used by Vonnegut to contrast the different events in Billy Pilgrim's life, Vonnegut also contemplates the nature of time and fate.
Opening Line: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts are anyway.”
Closing Line: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, woo-tee-weet?”
Quotes: "All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet."
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference."
"The legs of those who stood were like fence posts driven into a warm, squirming, farting, sighing earth. The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons."
Rating: Very Good.

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