Apparently, Kurt Vonnegut regarded this work as a failure. It’s also listed in the top one hundred science fiction books one ought to have read.
Well, I have read it now and whilst I don’t perhaps consider it a a failure, it is neither science fiction nor a classic novel. In fact, I got to the end wondering when it would start. So it goes.
It is merely a narration around an experience of the Dresden bombing, with an American character who would be better placed chatting with Willy Lomax or sitting under a tree with Vladimir and Estragon, or even, perhaps, sitting quietly listening to the Joad family as they head towards an non-existent Californian orange utopia. The narrative is broken, the narrative makes you wonder if Audrey Niffenegger read and re-read it before thinking of a wife for her particular time traveller, the narrative oscillates between a portrayal of the absurd that comes nowhere close to the skills of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and a mundane relating of a man who has lived through a war that lost its purpose in the mind of an individual before it even started.
Characters are sketches in this book, each as inconsequential and vapid as Montana Wildback, as Edgar Derby, as Roland Weary, as Kilgore Trout, as Wild Bob. The time in the prisoner of war camp makes me think of all those darkly humorous Hollywood film of the fifties and sixties where stereotypes abound of the stiff upper lip Englishman, the overbearing American, the gullible German and the wintry Russian. The novel is a sketch of something bigger, pretends to grab the coattails of iconic expressions of novel sub-genres.
Billy Pilgrim is a man who gives into the lie he is told to avoid. He gives into the easy determinism of letting fate take over his life; of letting his mind and body be tossed like a leaf in Vonnegut’s winds of past, present, and future. As a reader we are swept up in his personal tornado…we just never make it to Oz, rather we are stuck on Tralfamadore, with no free will, a plaything of fatalism.
Two sentences did stick with me:
the first “It is, in the imagination of combat’s fans, the divinely listless loveplay, that follows the orgasm of victory. It is called “mopping up”.”
the second “it was very exciting for her, taking his dignity away in the name of love.”
Both perfectly explain the perspective between winner and loser; the first showcases our need to tidy up, to categorize, to classify; the second to engage in seemingly altruistic actions which are really us satiating our own need to sense moral achievement. In the end, Billy Pilgrim knows how extraordinarily mundane his life is, how moments are precious and that choosing to stay in those moments is all that really matters. For him, fulfillment is understanding that the pinnacle of his existence can be as simple as a “sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon.”
The novel is not a failure, but it languishes in its own self-pity, its own determinism, its own fatalism. It is the very antithesis of Orwell’s 1984, taking the art of pacifism and showing how one can live a life of inactivism. Worth a read if you are a hard-nosed fan, but to be listed in the top 100 Science Fiction books of all time? Whoever made that list up needs a hard rethink.
Categories: Kurt Vonnegut