Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Slaughterhouse Five

I've never read Kurt Vonnegut, but have been told by enough readers that he's one of their favorite authors to pick up one of his books. When I passed by a shelf at my library that was full of the most commonly banned books in America, and found Slaughterhouse Five, with its distinctive "V" embellishing the front cover in plain view, I thought to my rebel self, "Perfect."

On any given day, I'm going to be an opponent of book banning. If any one person has a problem with a book, I fully embrace that person's agency to not read, never read, and with as much influence as they believe they have, persuade others to do the same.

ban1 [ban]
- verb - banned, ban·ning,
1.to prohibit, forbid, or bar; interdict: to ban nuclear weapons; The dictator banned all newspapers and books that criticized his regime.
a.to pronounce an ecclesiastical curse upon.
b.to curse; execrate.

Waaaaay too extreme an action for this book, and, really, for any book. Notice the sentence in italics used above. Notice it contained the word "dictator".

Banned or not, I found Vonnegut's part memoir/part novel about free will and war in general, but the bombing campaign against Dresden, Germany during World War II in particular, to be extremely provocative.

The plot is not your straightforward, everyday war novel plot. Rather, Vonnegut puts his character, Billy Pilgrim, an unambitious and fearful optometrist from New York, in the war and makes him the unwilling companion of a psychopath. As Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and later abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, the novel takes several unexpected twists.

It sounds weird, which it is, but not overly so. Somehow, even when describing the Tralfamadorian's ability to see in four dimensions, their ability to see everything that has ever happened at once but their choice to concentrate instead on any one moment of their lives, the hands that comes out of their bodies pointing straight up and their telepathic communication, it doesn't seem like a gimmick. Not only does it provide comic relief to a horrific subject matter, but it also allows Vonnegut to write a parallel perspective - perhaps his but probably more what he thinks the masses believe. As Billy Pilgrim narrates each scene, he does so with this Tralfamadorian understanding of time. The atrocities he faces in the rail car that takes him from France to Germany as a POW, the complete destruction and death of a once beautiful city and the execution of a good man are written with the matter-of factness and reality that would have been impossible for him to describe in detail otherwise.

I think part of the uproar, if there still is any, is over its age appropriateness. I know this is required reading for a lot of high school students, and while I think a mature and interested reader could appreciate the opinion Vonnegut attempts to give form to, the language, description and attitude of the book could easily offend many a student and parent.

It would be a hard thing to be an English teacher and give a "required reading list" to your class. You want to choose books that create discussion and trigger thought, which this book certainly does. However, just as I feel no book should truly be banned, I equally feel that every reader should have a choice as to what they read. But then, how do you have a class? I don't know.

As Billy Pilgrim famously says, "So it goes."

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