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Slaughterhouse Five


Adapted for a magnificent George Roy Hill film three years later (perhaps the only film adaptation of a masterpiece which exceeds its source), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is the now famous parable of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and POW, who has in the later stage of his life become “unstuck in time” and who experiences at will (or unwillingly) all known events of his chronology out of order and sometimes simultaneously. Traumatized by the bombing of Dresden at the time he had been imprisoned, Pilgrim drifts through all events and history, sometimes deeply implicated, sometimes a witness. He is surrounded by Vonnegut’s usual large cast of continuing characters (notably here the hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the alien Tralmafadorians who oversee his life and remind him constantly that there is no causation, no order, no motive to existence). The “unstuck” nature of Pilgrim’s experience may constitute an early novelistic use of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; then again, Pilgrim’s aliens may be as “real” as Dresden is real to him. Struggling to find some purpose, order or meaning to his existence and humanity’s, Pilgrim meets the beauteous and mysterious Montana Wildhack (certainly the author’s best character name), has a child with her and drifts on some supernal plane, finally, in which Kilgore Trout, the Tralmafadorians, Montana Wildhack and the ruins of Dresden do not merge but rather disperse through all planes of existence. Slaughterhouse-Fivewas hugely successful, brought Vonnegut an enormous audience, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller and remains four decades later as timeless and shattering a war fiction as Catch-22, with which it stands as the two signal novels of their riotous and furious decade.

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At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.
All this happened, more or less.
But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.
I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction. The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
So it goes.
Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
I had two books with me, which I’d meant to read on the plane. One was Words for the Wind, by Theodore Roethke, and this is what I found in there:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.I learn by going where I have to go
to give a damn
boyd
boydhas quoted2 years ago
He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.
I wake to steep, and take my waking slow. I feet my late in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

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Andrey Burlankov

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