I will confess that, in my reading preferences, I lean toward genre fiction. By default, that means I lean away from mainstream or literary fiction (although, when genre fiction vastly outsells literary fiction, can we really say that literary fiction is “mainstream”?). My view is not so simplistic as to say there is no good literary fiction out there, or that genre is by default superior; there is a lot of fantastic literary fiction on the market. Rather, I think that literary fiction has a tendency toward pretension and absurdity that genre fiction—being mostly driven by plot and motivated by finances—lacks. It’s only a tendency, not a hard-and-fast rule; but it explains my personal preferences. A significant portion of the literary fiction out there, essentially, is just terrible.
With that said, it always comes as a surprise—especially to me—when I come across a literary novel that I really, truly like. Such was the case with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Vonnegut is one of America’s literary darlings, and this book is certainly nothing new to many readers; I would confidently bet that it’s the first Vonnegut that most people read, as it was for me. The book remains popular, and has been consistently in print since its 1969 publication. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to anyone else that I would find it enjoyable; but it surprised me. After all, it has prominent qualities which I usually find irritating in books and movies alike: a non-linear structure, a distinct lack of action, a somewhat nebulous and ambiguous ending, an unreliable narrator. I like things to be straightforward, and this book is anything but. So, why would it appeal to me?
The book was years in the making; the first chapter, rather than diving into the narrative, gives Vonnegut’s perspective on the writing of the book and, more importantly, the experiences upon which it is based. Vonnegut fought at a young age in World War II, and was present as a prisoner of war for the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, an event which was little known in America for decades. By some calculations, the destruction in Dresden was worse than that in Hiroshima. Vonnegut’s fictional protagonist follows the same steps, for the most part, as Vonnegut himself (though, to be fair, Vonnegut doesn’t mean for his protagonist to be him; he casts himself in a bit part of the novel, claiming to have been there along with the fictional Billy Pilgrim). These experiences are framed in a mild science-fiction story; Billy Pilgrim has had two remarkable sci-fi experiences. He has been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who placed him in a zoo for an extended period before returning him to the same night in which he left; and, more importantly, he has become “unstuck in time”, meaning that he has out-of-body experiences in which he lives moments from his own past and future. The two situations are unconnected, but are vital to the story; the “unstuck in time” scenes allow the non-linear telling of the story to develop organically, while the alien abduction gives Billy a motivation for changing his outlook on life, death, and war.
My first, rather shallow, thought upon first reading the book was that it was the sci-fi elements that attracted me; and indeed, I’ve seen this novel billed as a science-fiction story. I assure you, though, it isn’t; and the sci-fi elements aren’t even particularly strong or well-developed. They seem to affect only the inward aspects of Billy Pilgrim; they have little effect on events, and even seem to be actively insulated from affecting events. They exist to move the story along, and to allow Vonnegut to obliquely tell what must have been an incredibly difficult story for him. The story is anti-war, but not overtly so; there’s a clear undertone that war is bad, but mostly inevitable. Still, it’s clear that the firebombing of Dresden—not to mention the entire war—was a troubling and formative time for Vonnegut, and he seems to need the frame story to get it down on paper.
In the end, that’s what I liked about the story. One could argue all day about the message Vonnegut wanted to get across; but what I saw in the story is that he hadn’t yet worked it all out. Dresden was troubling, yes—as a massacre should be, and that’s the understatement of the year—but Vonnegut had not in fact come fully to terms with it. He dances through and around the issue, taking a peek into one viewpoint or another—and in the end, he’s still disquieted, and still not sure, and that strikes me as a very honest take. The lessons of such a terrible event shouldn’t be easy to process. It takes an entire lifetime, whether in or out of order.