Sunday, 27 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Whilst I accept it may be poor form taking potshots at Noel Gallagher just as there's little point to protesting that water is wet or that Adolf Hitler wasn't a very nice man, it's fun nevertheless, not least with regard to comments of this sort:

People who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.

Just to be clear, I put myself considerably more than a little bit above Noel Gallagher on the grounds that I have two distinct eyebrows and have never in my life written a line as comically meaningless as how does it feel like to let forever be? I mean, what the fuck is that? How does it feel like doesn't actually work in the language to which its constituent words belong, and then we have let forever be presumably meaning let forever alone - don't be one of those people who keeps mucking about with forever, trying to force it to wear a hat and tying ribbons around its bollocks.

What a complete cock.

Anyway, predictable though it may be given Gallagher's raging inferiority complex kicking off every time someone uses one of those fancy, posh long words like what posh people use when they're looking down their posh, snobby noses at you, this week's hot topic has been his distrust of fiction in literature:

I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time. I can't suspend belief in reality ... I just end up thinking, this isn't fucking true.

I know - it's not really worth getting upset about - although by curious coincidence it sits close to some points that have occurred to me whilst re-reading Slaughterhouse Five.

Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical account of the second world war and particularly the bombing of Dresden, arguably science-fiction due to passages spent in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore and the fact of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, experiencing his life in random order having become unstuck in time. Despite how that may sound, Slaughterhouse Five has a fairly tight and coherent narrative despite the superficial resemblance to something Burroughs might have cooked up, albeit a narrative warped and distorted by its own non-linear sequence.

'There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.'

The reason for this scrambled text is more or less spelled out in the opening chapter - thus hopefully circumnavigating accusations of experimental technique employed solely for the purpose of alienating people like Noel Gallagher; this being that some occurrences, particularly those experienced during wartime, are so horrible and so outside the realm of ordinary human comprehension that it is impossible to make sense of them by conventional means, if at all. The firebombing of Dresden was, Vonnegut suggests, one such occurrence. It can be mapped and described in terms of prose, but it isn't anything one can reasonably expect to understand as such, so seemingly random or even absurd images are as good as it gets; and that may sound like meaningless artspeak, but actually he's right.

Slaughterhouse Five is a funny book about something horrible, and by extension about the very worst aspects of human nature, and it works not by pointing fingers or frowning but by compelling the reader to think in a certain way about that which it describes, which seems consistent with D.H. Lawrence's assertion from Why the Novel Matters:

The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't really like anything I've read before or since and is almost certainly one of the greatest novels ever written.

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