Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death
It seems a little odd to me that I’ve never read this book, and in fact I wondered if maybe I had, and had just forgotten. But as soon as we started listening to this audiobook (my parents and I, on the way home from New Orleans) I knew I’d never heard or read this book before. Vonnegut is always thrilling and fascinating! I know I really enjoyed his Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse-Five shares with them a very surreal, time-warped, rambling, fantastical tone. It feels like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, particularly the scene in the movie where they take the ether and things turn on their sides.
For those who don’t know, this is Vonnegut’s autobiographical story of the bombing of Dresden, which he experienced, like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, as a POW in a slaughterhouse. Vonnegut, and Billy, survived only because they were holed up in the meat locker there, while the vast majority of the city burned.
Billy’s story involves war, bullying, sex, time travel, optometry, drinking, and misunderstanding. Overarching themes of death and timelessness tie the winding threads together. The world does not believe that Billy travels in time or that he was kidnapped by little green aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore. We hear of Billy’s whole life, as a small child, as a student, as a soldier in the war, as a young husband, as a professional optometrist, as a feature in a zoo on Tralfamadore, and as an old man. Like Billy, we don’t keep these experiences in sequence, but drop in here and there.
Billy’s story is preceded by a long intro in which Vonnegut narrates, not his experience as a soldier or a POW, but as a writer, many years later, struggling to write about Dresden. He visits an old war buddy and learns of this buddy’s wife’s fear of war. She’s concerned that he’ll write a book glorifying the experience and thereby encouraging future generations to make war. He reassures her that “there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne” in his book, if he even ever finishes it. He also promises her he’ll call it “The Children’s Crusade”, agreeing with her that they were just babies over there.
This is a very powerful story. Descriptions of the horrors of war are evocative, perhaps even more so the depiction of the POW’s in the railroad cars passing steel helmets filled with their excrement to the men standing near the ventilation slots. War is bad. But there’s much more to this book than the point that war is bad; it’s also a fascinating story about family and relationships. (I’m reminded of Breakfast of Champions with its bizarre family structures and roles and dysfunction.) And the world of Tralfamadore is fantastical, incredibly imaginative, and so fully-developed in its details, I just wonder at Vonnegut. Where does he get this stuff? The turns of phrase are memorable. A drinking man’s breath smells of mustard gas and roses. That’s poetry.
This story is beautiful, strange, and strangely feels endless. It finishes with a question-mark; loose ends are not entirely tied up. How could they be, when events are presented out of sequence, and Tralfamadorian concepts teach that no one moment ever ends? Vonnegut was a genius, and I want to keep reading him all my life. (There are still a number of titles I haven’t touched, and were you aware? just this January, a new volume of his previously unpublished short fiction came out. It’s called While Mortals Sleep.) Oh, and I want to mention the reader of this audio version. He speaks in a strange whisper, and his style is very, very effective for this book. Guess who? None other than Ethan Hawke. I was surprised, and tried throughout to place this handsome actor behind the voice I was hearing; but I couldn’t put the guy I know from Reality Bites and Training Day into Vonnegut’s world. Very strange. I guess that’s the mark of a great actor, that he can fill different roles believably. I’m impressed.