I actually didn’t have many options to choose from, since I’m usually discerning enough in my reading that the chances of me choosing a book I don’t like are pretty low. As such, my primary source of bad books has been school. And of these, there was one in particular that everyone – critics, professors, fellow students – just insisted was a work of pure genius, but that left me disgusted.
It tells of the beautiful German city of Dresden needlessly firebombed to oblivion in the twilight of World War II. Of a mild-mannered optometrist who becomes “unstuck in time.” Of the same man living in sexual bliss with a porn star named Montana in an alien zoo. And it’s all kooky science fiction played for grim laughs. Am I describing a Woody Allen story? Hardly.
The book is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
The crux of the matter is this: I believe that the idea of heroism is a vital one in spite of mankind’s sorry imperfection, but Vonnegut’s book declares the death of heroism. Vonnegut himself served in World War II and as a POW witnessed firsthand the firebombing of Dresden, Germany; according to him, this most beautiful and sophisticated of cities had no strategic importance and no reason for the Allies to need to destroy it so utterly. The horror of this event seems to have given him a rage against all who wage war, regardless of reason. All wars are “fought by babies” instead of heroic men, he says, and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (18, 24) except that of the birds, who sing “Poo-tee-weet” over the blood-soaked fields. The one heroic character in the book, a minor fellow named Edgar Derby, dies ignominiously and suddenly, with no epitaph, no eulogy. Heroism is dead, let it go, is the message.
Now, especially in those world wars, there were doubtless many soldiers who were really just boys, and I will believe a firsthand report that says the human tongue is paralyzed when faced with the visceral horror of a massacre. But just because we cannot find something intelligent to say about it doesn’t mean that something doesn’t exist. I thank God that I have never encountered the war firsthand, and pray that I never will, but I also praise Him because He understands the meaning of every human experience; that understanding flows from Him. Part of Vonnegut’s problem, I think, is that he takes the inability of the human mind to comprehend the entirety of existence and concludes that there is therefore nothing much to comprehend. He excludes the possibility of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God, and is left with nothingness.
The story itself, sans themes, isn’t particularly great either. The one good idea is that of Billy Pilgrim being involuntarily “unstuck in time.” He pops in and out of different parts of his life entirely out of order, often visiting the same incident many times, and has absolutely no control over what will come next. It’s kind of like The Time Traveler’s Wife, except that movie used it to affirm the power of life, love, and goodness. Then Vonnegut deliberately makes his protagonist bland and apathetic, but just because it is deliberately done does not make it good. Billy has no concern for his own life, neither its continuation nor its quality, and not in any heroic sense. He simply doesn’t care about anything except being left alone. When, as a ten year-old, his father tries to teach him to swim by tossing him into a pool, Billy lets himself sink to the bottom without even attempting to stay afloat. Drowning is a pleasant experience for him, full of “beautiful music everywhere,” and he resents being rescued (55). He is not courageous, morally strong, curious, or determined to persevere in the face of adversity. He learns nothing from his experiences. World War II does not make a man out of him.
Vonnegut’s writing is occasionally effective, especially when its sparseness contrasts with a few carefully chosen words of startling imagery. In general, though, it was not to my liking. His much-praised sense of humor also left me cold. Why do people think this book is hilarious? It’s just sad, really. He is good at being weird, what with the Tramalfadorians’ wacky ideas, but one gets the sense that he is always trying hard to be profound in some existential, postmodern way. Perhaps if you agree with his worldview, you’d think him funny and insightful. I do not, though I think he has it in him to be so.
In writing his anti-war book, Vonnegut ends up espousing a relativistic worldview – whether or not his personal worldview is truly relativistic is irrelevant; the point is that his book is. He presents his aliens from the planet Tramalfador as wise, because they have the ability to see in all four dimensions, meaning they see all of eternity at once, with “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects” (112). For them, fate is absolute and there is no point in trying to avoid anything because it is all structured to happen. Their outlook on life comforts Billy because it justifies his apathy, his general laziness and reclusive nature. Nothing is his fault or responsibility, so he essentially sits back and lets his life play out, accepting all pains and pleasures as they come and mourning none as they leave. It is the aliens’ commentary on death, “So it goes,” that Vonnegut repeats so frequently in his narrative (34).
Vonnegut was aware that the book’s internal philosophy (I do not know if it is truly his own) destroys the concepts of heroism that he thought led to false arrogance among those who win wars. But such a philosophy kills not only heroism, but also anything that can be termed good. I am reminded of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X, which begins:
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…”
Donne’s philosophy is the opposite of that portrayed in Slaughterhouse-Five; not that war is good, but that fate itself is subject to a higher power, that even death itself will one day be conquered. How? Donne was an Anglican minister, and he believed in life after death. But also, he believed free will to be a gift to man, by which they could be heroic if they chose to follow God’s own heroic Son.
So we go, and Christ goes with us.