Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Slaughterhouse Five and Beyond

An intense neutrality. That's what I felt upon finishing Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Much like a 'petit mort', I didn't exactly feel happy or sad, just a calming and strangely pleasing nothingness. In a way this is strange because the book is filled with hilarious observations and one-liners, great characters and dramatic developments, yet the culmination was decidedly level. I mean that in the best way possible.

Really I've not read anything this powerful since Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. The great scope of the novel is particularly striking, taking on themes of war (and the destruction inherent therein), humanity, existentialism, death and whatnot framed structurally within a pastiche (or maybe it should be parody?) of science fiction. The war elements were harrowing for various reasons. Not only does it form a critique in the sense of 'why is this senseless act being allowed to happen' (the book's alternate title is The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death) but also shows the effects in the darkness of the book. Some people (with mindsets from long ago) would find mixing humour and death tasteless, but Vonnegut's own experiences have no doubt de-sensetized him from such petty concerns, allowing him to write 'truthfully' about such events.

At the time of reading it, I thought it was like a cross between K-Pax (I've seen Iain Softley's film, the one starring Kevin Spacey) and Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. It resembles Softley's work in the sense of us being presented with two different realities for the 'main' character and we are presented with evidence to support either reality and resolution of this conflict is a very slippery thing. This makes a book great, in my opinion, because it teases the reader and gets their mind going. It reminded me of Hamilton's novel in that Vonnegut writes about a 'fourth dimension' that Billy Pilgrim can exist in, but in Hangover Square the narrative device is a "click" that sends the protagonist into a "dead mood". These are both cerebral states, it can be argued, neither one of them experienced by anyone else (at least not those that are really real) and they make you feel close to the characters (as you are privy to the same things they are) and get emotionally involved.

I've tried not to include much plot detail to avoid ruining the experience of reading the text, which creates problems because then the post doesn't contain much of the book I'm on about, just my ramblings. C'est la vie. If you like the sound of sci-fi more than the war elements, why not check out Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. It's a more out-and-out science fiction novel but still with the same satirical take on religion, the human condition and beyond. The tension of a world-shattering device teetering on the edge of misuse is timeless, I hope you enjoy reading one or more of the books mentioned here.

I am indebted to Neil for lending me both Vonnegut books. Two steps in the right direction - thank you.


  1. Great bit of writing here Martin. Glad the book had an effect on you. Am still looking for 'Mother Night'. It's here somewhere, I know it is...

    1. Thanks dude, I struggle a bit to get all the enthusiasm I have for it in a post without writing a billion words :)


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