“All the real soldiers are dead.”
This is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time. Throughout Vonnegut’s excellent book, Billy shrugs his way through the firebombing of Dresden, abduction by aliens, a plan crash in Vermont, becoming a prophet to the masses, and generally just being a hilariously chill guy in extreme circumstances.
I am overjoyed to have finally read this book, and to have made it the final book of Bruce’s Bookstravaganza Timetravelganza Extraordinaire! Trilogy of Readings, in the way that I am always pleased when I read a “classic” and find that it’s actually good, it actually deserves its reputation. One of my favourite books is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which came out eight years before Slaughterhouse-5 (1961 and 1969, respectively) and obviously had a profound influence on Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s story (right down to the word-hyphen-number title). This derivativeness in no way undermines how good Slaughterhouse-5 turned out to be. As I’ve already spoken about, anyone can have a good idea, but anyone else can take that idea and make it a thousand times better (Steven Moffat’s River Song arc blows Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife out of the water, there is my only Doctor Who reference, I promise). I read Catch-22 four years ago, so I think I’ll have to read it again to see if I like it better or worse than Vonnegut’s book, but either way, my point is that Slaughterhouse-Five chose to be in the best possible company.
To continue my comparison to The Time Traveller’s Wife, again this universe has time as a fixed, constant, unchangeable entity rather than anything as timey-wimey as The Man Who Folded Himself. We are like ladybugs trapped in amber, according to one beautiful metaphor that Vonnegut uses, or else we’re on a trolley coasting along some rails with our necks locked in place so we can’t move a micrometer and our eyes staring down a six-foot long metal tube at the tiny pinpoint of scenery that passes us by, according to a more horrifying metaphor. But the difference with Slaughterhouse-Five is that Billy Pilgrim is unfazed by this for a reason—it’s part of a whole philosophy of history and being, where it is very comforting to think that everything has/is/will happen/ed/ing, because we are always alive and always dead, so it goes. In The Time Traveller’s Wife, Henry and Clare just didn’t want to think about determinism and blithely dismissed it as an unsolvable question. I may also have enjoyed this book so much more because Billy Pilgrim is one of the most unfazed, go-along, live-life-with-calm-acceptance, be-fucking-zen-while-you-are-fleeing-Nazis characters ever written, and his curious blankness makes him funny and sympathetic rather than being annoyingly perfect with a few token flaws thrown in in an obvious attempt to achieve “rounded character” status.
Billy’s blankness, his unshakeable calm, could be from his alien abduction and introduction to this different worldview, or PTSD at having seen so many horrible things in the war, or just a peaceful fuck-you to all the powerful people around him who think they have control of the situation when everything is prescripted. His time-travel is achieved only in his consciousness, and his mind wanders around through his infinite bodies throughout his whole lifetime, looping around for eternity, living the same things over and over. In this way, Billy may have approached Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day acceptance of life—it’s never really clear how many times Billy has lived through these scenes. But he gets to be the cosmic fool, a wise buffoon who is wearily bitterly commenting on all this pointless war even as he is so far removed and so deeply ingrained in it.
In probably my favourite passage, Billy’s unstuckness causes him to view a 1960’s American WWII film in reverse. He describes how the bombing planes are amazing bringers of life—they fly along, sucking up fire and missiles and bombs into themselves, restoring life to the devastated hellscapes below. Then the bombs are shipped back to America and carefully disassembled by factories full of women working round the clock. Then the constituent minerals are cleverly buried by engineers, so that they are out of harm’s way and can’t be used to sow destruction. It’s an extremely simple concept that’s executed amazingly well, and brought a moment of stillness, of sadness and recognition at how simple it is to stop fighting, even though we know it won’t happen, to this otherwise manically-paced and darkly comedic book.
As a weary German cook tells Billy—clad in a tiny coat, azure toga, and painted-silver boots taken from a POW production of Cinderella—and his Nazi guard—a sixteen year old with a hundred-year old blunderbuss—and his commanding officer—a high school teacher who is/was/will be court martialed and executed for stealing a teapot—by 1945, all the real soldiers are dead and war is being fought by the dregs, the clowns, in a horrific and farcical final act. Just like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5 takes the horror and humanizes it in a way that no tragedy can really do: by ripping away the images of heroes and villains, and focusing on the tiny moments of ridiculousness and insanity that really make up human life, even in the most dire circumstances. That’s why this book is going on my Favourites shelf, along with Catch-22 and Angels in America and The Sea Around Us.
Since Slaughterhouse-5 reminded me so much of Joseph Heller’s most famous book, I turn my attention now to one of his lesser known works: Picture This, which the back cover assures me “does for the universe of art and museums what Catch-22 did for war.” My expectations are high, I’ll read it and be disappointed and get back to you, so it goes.