Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My brain wants to give this five stars. My heart wants to give it less, but my brain's going to win this one. That's because this book manages to walk an impossible line: it jumps around in time yet somehow keeps a driving, disjointed narrative; it is harsh as war yet gentle as an epitath (and so it goes); it is an absurd circus to the tune of a classical dirge. Every word is true, but I don't believe the sum of the words, and I believe I'm right to do so. Still, no one writes of devastation better than Vonnegut. This voice needs to be heard and this book needs to be read. In the audiobook I listened to, Ethan Hawke gave a masterful, hushed reading, so I recommend listening to that even if you've already read it.

But what about my heart? Well, near the end of listening to this I started reading In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin, which describes a WWII veteran upon his return, much like Billy Pilgrim. But the voice is a bit different. Light-years, in fact.  It was like reading through 3-D glasses: Vonnegut was the blue lens and Helprin the red (the color of roses, iron, and blood). I want to set Helprin's words next to Vonnegut's:

" He straightened in his seat, lifting himself until he seemed taller, unconsciously positioning his upper body as if for a fight -- not with Catherine, but with an idea. His eyes narrowed a bit as they seemed to flood with energy. " ... People like that always want to show you that they're wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me -- who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing -- have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard ... The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw ... the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time. ... Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child -- what else is there? ... those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because in the end, you lose them." "

Helprin and Vonnegut are not diametrically opposed. Vonnegut's words can be tender, he has his ceremony (and so it goes), he is courteous to his characters, at least to Billy. But love is as hard to find in this novel as free will -- it is nowhere. It is not in Billy's marriage, or in his friends, or his children. I don't think this is just because Vonnegut was in Dresden when Helprin was a child. It's because of a choice each of them made and one everyone has to make. That choice has rarely been put so clearly as in these two books side by side. That's why you should read Vonnegut. Just make sure you read something like Helprin too.

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