I finished Slaughterhouse-Five last night.
The first time I remember coming across the name Kurt Vonnegut was on Keith’s bookshelves. Keith was my music teacher’s husband, and while my sister was having music lessons, I would go upstairs and keep Keith company, watching him work on music projects or work in the yard, or talk about books. Keith’s studio was filled with tchotchkes and posters, furniture and figurines. It was such an exotic space to me: books about Orson Welles and Kurasawa, a large CD collection, reproductions of entertainment posters from Italy between the wars. That was the inception of an omnivorous and catholic appetite that later would lead me to Portland—I see his studio in Voodoo Doughnuts, or Hollywood Vintage, or any of the shadows of Old Portland—and now that I’m thinking about how I want to furnish my own space, all I want is to recreate it.
Keith had a lot of books too. Once I got a little older, the only reason that I got to read some of these books that might be talked about on NPR, The Corrections, The Island of the Day Before, was because Keith would pass them on. At the time, all I had to offer in return was the Left Behind series and Tom Clancy books. He also loved old detective noir: Earle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout. And the only writer that had his own shelf was Kurt Vonnegut.
I have the mature person’s ability to look back on my own past, and with new perspective on living find new information in my own memory. I have the immature person’s desire to find tidy meanings in everything. After finishing Slaughterhouse-Five I thought back to Keith’s dry and sardonic humor, and then I decide to leave it.
I read Cat’s Cradle and didn’t get much out of it. There are some writers that write like the most polished and poetic versions of the best voices in my head: Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, James Agee. Vonnegut’s voice is their opposite: not bad or offputting, but completely alien. There’s a ferocity, and aggression to his sense of humor, and he has a way of hitting you with an insight or an idea or a horror, and never letting up to pause or consider but moving on to the next thing. That said, I really enjoyed Slaughterhouse, and I have a couple of naive thoughts to give:
The message is the message. In Slaughterhouse, the most tragicomic figures are those who no one listens to. Billy Pilgrim on the radio show. Wild Bob and his delusional belief that he will ever see Casey, Wyoming again. Kilgore Trout, who wrote over seventy books, not a single one of which made a penny. Conversely, scorn is heaped on those who corrupt the stories, who obscure the truths of what has happened, like Bertram Rumfoord, or the American Nazi Howard Campbell, Jr*. With this in mind, these repeated phrases, “So it goes,” “Po-te-weet,” and these mantras, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt,” and the serenity prayer, are like cultural deprogramming. They are powerful slogans, catchphrases upon which to build a foundation of peace in the same way that Wilfred Owen stole Dolce et decorum est forever from Virgil. Of course, the despair of the book is that Vonnegut does not believe in our own ability to change ourselves: even the closest human to the divine, Jesus, put into the world the same weapon that was used to hurt him.
There’s a way in which quotations, creeds, mantras have a lifecycle from obscure/profound to recognizable/tribal to ubiquitous/cheap. I never knew that “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt,” recognizable to me from hipster crosstich, email signatures, and tattoos, came from this book. I don’t think that Vonnegut would feel that this cheapens his idea. I think he would be proud.
Horror. I loved the way that Vonnegut moves around in time, and as we approach the horrific memory that is the center of gravity of the story, all rules of fiction come apart, like a body entering a black hole. The line between Billy and the narrator and the author becomes blurred. The extraterrestrial experiences that we want to believe are made up of bad pulp fiction and porn. The exotic countries of History and Past and Literature are threatened by the globalization of Vietnam and Reagan.
Beauty. I went back and forth between whether I thought this was an artless book or not. His prose is extremely plainspoken. Occasionally there would be an image of such spare, naive beauty that made me forget that debate at all. The passage where Billy watches a bombing raid in reverse is heartbreaking and universal and intimate all at the same time:
“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby.”
*Any ideas about who Rumfoord is supposed to be? When I saw the name, I thought Bertram Russell, but that makes no sense. Howard Campbell, Jr. seems to be an analogue to George Lincon Rockwell.