Slaughterhouse Five

Or The Children’s Crusade
A Duty-Dance With Death
By Kurt Vonnegut
275 pages
Dial Press Trade Paperback
@ 1969

I’ve said it before: I like Vonnegut. But, he gets a bit too vulgar for my tastes. I suppose it could be argued that war is vulgar, so a book about war must be vulgar. I suppose.

Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim (William Pilgrim), has gotten unstuck in time and has traveled to another planet where he has learned not to fear death. Because death is only one moment of many moments; the other moments were, for the most part, happy. So you die in one moment, but there are plenty more when you are alive. Why not focus on those?

I like Vonnegut’s big ideas. Sort of like Robert Heinlein’s big ideas. Fleshing them out is tricky.

Vonnegut fought in World War II, and much of what happened in the book really happened. He says he was trying to write the book for a long time. After all, how could he not write about the fire bombing of Dresden? You’d think there would be a lot to write about, laments Vonnegut. Airplanes flew over that city and dropped incendiary material on the whole city. People were burned alive. Everything burned. All the buildings were destroyed. Only those who were able to shelter underground survived. Not many people survived.

“The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

Someone at work was pestering me about irony. OK, that’s irony. The guy didn’t get burned alive during the firebombing. He took a teapot out of the rubble after it was all over. Probably, he thought no one wanted it because everyone was dead. And a cup of tea sounded nice. Something warm. Some kind of comfort after all that misery. But after all that, someone decided the soldier was stealing. And then decided to shoot him. For a teapot. The guy survived something that he was not likely to survive to be shot for something that he was not likely to be shot for. Ironic.

I like the way Vonnegut describes himself as a writer:

“A trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations…”

World War II was bad. Shockingly bad. But people have been doing bad things for ages. Vonnegut subtitles his book the Children’s Crusade. According to Vonnegut, the Children’s Crusade started in 1213, “when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered…about half of them drowned in shipwrecks…”

The book is jumbled. Vonnegut explains this:

“…there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.”

“I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.”

People are not supposed to look back says Vonnegut:

“…Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

“Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

Dresden, fire bombings, Children’s Crusades, birds.

I’ve gotta read something less depressing.

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