Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
A little over a half century ago, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five—a darkly comic, throughly batshit, semi-autobiographical anti-war novel about a fatalistic young American soldier who survives the firebombing of Dresden and becomes “unstuck in time”—exploded onto the literary scene. A bestseller upon its release, the book has gone on to become one of the most beloved and influential (not to mention challenged) works of contemporary American fiction. It has also enjoyed a storied pop culture life, appearing or being namechecked in everything from The Wonder Years to The Simpsons, Footloose to Varsity Blues. There was even a 90s folk-rock duo called Billy Pilgrim who weren’t half bad.
Before it joined the ranks of the immortals, though, Slaughterhouse-Five had to run the book review gauntlet just like any other novel. Today, on what would have been the Vonnegut’s ninety-eight birthday, we look back at five of the earliest critical takes.
“Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an indescribable writer whose seven previous books are like nothing else on earth, was accorded the dubious pleasure of witnessing a 20th-century apocalypse. During World War II, at the age of 23, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned beneath the city of Dresden, ‘the Florence of the Elbe.’ He was there on Feb. 13, 1945, when the Allies firebombed Dresden in a massive air attack that killed 130,000 people and destroyed a landmark of no military significance.
Next to being born, getting married and having children, it is probably the most important thing that ever happened to him. And, as he writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, he’s been trying to write a book about Dresden ever since. Now, at last, he’s finished the ‘famous Dresden book.’
In the same introduction, which should be read aloud to children, cadets and basic trainees, Mr. Vonnegut pronounces his book a failure ‘because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.’ He’s wrong and he knows it.
Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story.
The odd combination of fact and fiction forces a question upon the reader: how did the youth who lived through the Dresden bombing grow up to be the man who wrote this book? One reads Slaughterhouse-Five with that question crouched on the brink of one’s awareness. I’m not sure if there’s an answer, but the question certainly heightens the book’s effects.
“I know, I know (as Kurt Vonnegut used to say when people told him that the Germans attacked first). It sounds crazy. It sounds like a fantastic last-ditch effort to make sense of a lunatic universe. But there is so much more to this book. It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works. But is also very Vonnegut, which mean you’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner.”
“We live in an age of great seriousness. We are accustomed to getting our art in heavy, pretentious doses. Anything funny is suspect, and anything simple is doubly suspect. Here we come to the second difficulty with Kurt Vonnegut. His style is effortless, naive, almost childlike. There are no big words and no complicated sentences. It is an extraordinarily difficult style, but that fact is lost on anyone who has never tried to write that way.
“He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches. But Vonnegut, armed with his schizophrenia, takes an absurd, distorted, wildly funny framework which is ultimately anaesthetic. In doing so, his science fiction heritage is clear, but his purposes are very different: he is nearly always talking about the past, not the future. And as he proceeds, from his anaesthetic framework, to clean the shit off, we are able to cheer him on—at least for a while. But eventually we stop cheering, and stop laughing.
“A Vonnegut book is not cute or precious. It is literally awful, for Vonnegut is one of the few writers able to lift the lid of the garbage can, and dispassionately examine the contents. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the author quotes his father as saying, “You never wrote a story with a villain in it.” This may be true, but Vonnegut never wrote a story with a hero in it, either. In Slaughterhouse-Five he also says, ‘Nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,’ and it is within this framework that he writes about an event that should qualify for all those adjectives— the firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut experienced as a prisoner of war in Germany.
There is every indication that this book represents, for Vonnegut, a final statement of his thoughts about this experience. He says so explicitly, just as he says the project is doomed to failure (‘There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’). The book also brings together characters and locales from other books—Howard W. Campbell, Jr., Eliot Rosewater, and Ilium, N.Y., giving the novel a faintly anthological flavor. The book is written in the brief segmental manner he developed in Cat’s Cradle, organized as a collection of impressions, scattered in time and space, each told with the kind of economy one associates with poetry. It is beautifully done, fluid, smooth, and powerful.
There is also some business about a distant planet and flying saucers, but that does not make the book science fiction, any more than flippers make a cat a penguin. In the final analysis the book is hideous, ghastly, murderous—and calm. There are just people, doing what people usually do to each other.”
“Kurt Vonnegut introduces his seventh novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, apologetically, calling it a failure. Coming from most writers, an apology like that would be inadequate; a writer can always take a vow of permanent abstinence from writing, and there is a shortage of cabdrivers. Mr. Vonnegut’s penitential gesture is objectionable because it implies that he might have succeeded in solving a problem that he properly represents as insoluble. In 1945, a German prisoner of war, he lived through the American and British bombing of Dresden, in which a hundred and thirty-five thousand people died—nearly twice as many, he notes, as were killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, whose devastation was at least officially honored by a Presidential announcement. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s tribute to the strain imposed on his conscience by the fact that he survived, and by his increasing awareness, since the war, of the scope and variety of death. The vibrant simplicity of the book to which he finally surrendered his emotion makes his apology seem disingenuous, like Alexander the Great putting himself down for not dedicating his life to untying the Gordian knot. Besides, any book that is touted as a ‘masterpiece,’ ‘long-awaited,’ and ‘twenty years in the making’ can’t be all bad if it turns out to be just a neat hundred and eighty-six pages long.
Acknowledging the rich past and the bright prospects of death, Vonnegut cuts through his prodigious obsession with calculated diffidence, offering a lament and a protest in the disguise of a fable with no moral.
“In the opening chapter, Vonnegut vouches for the truth of the Second World War characters and incidents in Slaughterhouse-Five and then proceeds to demonstrate, by exchanging feeling for outer-spatial detachment, how outrageous the truth is. Under cover of the bland narration, the facts and the science fiction are equally plausible, but blandness gives characters like the crazy colonel and the forty-year-old ex-hobo an edge over the Tralfamadorians, who are, after all, green and shaped like plungers. Vonnegut concedes the difference, in effect, by interrupting the story of Billy Pilgrim twice to say, ‘I was there.’
The short, flat sentences of which the novel is composed convey shock and despair better than an array of facts or effusive mourning. Still, deliberate simplicity is as hazardous as the grand style, and Vonnegut occasionally skids into fatuousness.”
“A bullet makes a small to entry and a messy exit. Enormities in the mind do the same. ‘Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-wee.” ‘ So how is the mind to cope with an experience like Dresden where it is known, if not comprehended, that 130,000 civilians were incinerated overnight and the huddled survivors shot up next morning? The oddest and most directly and obliquely heart-searching war book for years proves how art, in its own good time, can find a way. Here is war as a ridiculous ogre trapped by its own braces on the pillars of the firmament. Here are the dead of Dresden. Catch-22 was a splendid, savage but abstract joke compared with the irony and compassion of Mr Vonnegut’s.
“It is a stark and comic rendering of scarecrow men-children as lost in war as the babes of the Children’s Crusade who were fodder for African slave-markets when they thought they were bound for the Holy Sepulchre. It is the story of mind crying Stop! to Time before the corpses fill the corpse mines, and of gangling Billy Pilgrim, later successful optometrist of Ilium, Ill., former Chaplain’s assistant taken prisoner before there was time to fit him out with boots; who survived Dresden in an underground abattoir and had, somehow to live with it.
He becomes a time-traveller, is taken by the little green men to their planet, taught not to fuss so when there is no beginning or end, no moral, no cause or effects; just bugs in the amber of eternal Now. The time warp throws up jumbled memories, precognitions, visions. With the new eyes he sees Dresden in reverse, the fires dying out, buildings reconstructed, bombs sucked back into bomb-bays, shipped home ‘where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly it was mostly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anyone ever again.’
In the rubble of liberated Dresden a released American is shot by Americans, for purloining a teapot. Billy’s hippy son straightens out, becomes a Green Beret. Truman applauds the A-bomb; a pre-war guide points out Dresden’s charms – sequence and order are immaterial to the time-traveller who is now naked in a cage on Tralfamadore with a movie queen, now excavating the bodies until it is decided to seal them in. The frontispiece carries a verse from ‘Away in a manger’ and nothing in this devastating and supremely human book makes it seem out of place.”
“Slaughterhouse-Five, with its time jumps, trips to other planets, the firebombing of Dresden, and the casual mingling of the current history of the author with that of his fictional world, remains, when all of its wearisome inventiveness is done, one of the most unsurprising, self-indulgent little books ever to work so hard at being selfless and memorable. Not one character emerges from it with anything like the grotesque clarity which, say, Malaparte gave to a briefly encountered soul caught in the inferno of World War II; not one attitude in all of Vonnegut’s darkly humorous anecdotes of life and death stays in the mind except the infantile stoicism exemplified by the recurrent and infuriatingly Olympian phrase ‘and so it goes.’ There is no intimation in this book of a sensibility which understands what is relevant to the conjunction of history and personal imagination, understands, finally, how carefully balanced a book must be that wishes to encompass the annihilation of millions and the mental caprices of one dull hero.
“It would be unjust to harp on the conclusions of Vonnegut’s mental odyssey through Slaughterhouse-Five if the voyage itself had had some interest. After all, a book is under no obligation to come to any conclusion at all about itself. Slaughterhouse-Five, however, seems to be nothing else but conclusion. The tone of judgment surrounds all the events of the book, jostling the reader again and again into an atmosphere of self-pity, into moments thick with unearned, lyrical agonies. Along the way, Vonnegut tries to come up with a moment or two to justify his reputation as a black satirist. But his imagination is not so much antic as it is willful, an imagination which does not disguise the fact that, however swaggering and adventurous in tone, it is in the service of a moralist too easily satisfied that the world confirms his point of view. This might be artistically excusable if that point of view were at all complex or idiosyncratic, but it is, rather, much too obvious and commonplace to need so much baroque substantiation. For all his notoriety, Vonnegut never really goes further than the poor estimate society has about itself even in its most official pronouncements. He therefore stops where an intelligent imagination ought to begin.”