so it goes
March 8, 2019 7:05 AM   Subscribe

I am now 38. I live in a rented house in Pittsboro, N.C., with my wife, my two daughters and my dog. I try to be kind. I try not to hurt people. And though I have just told you all the things I know with certainty about that day in September in Tal Afar, Iraq, when I was 24, I’m still not sure what it means. I don’t know if my being there in that place and at that time makes me a bad person, but on most days I think it means I do not get to claim to be a good one. Kevin Powers writes for the New York Times on the moral clarity of Slaughterhouse-five fifty years after its publication.
posted by ChuraChura (9 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by mule98J at 7:53 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


I'm in my fifties now, and I was in the peacetime Army. I really liked Vonnegut as a teenager because his books wore their hearts on their sleeves. In my thirties, I was less interested because of their apparent lack of sophistication. But as I got older still, it seems to me that you really couldn't have a Vonnegut without a Dresden - a life-changing experience of horror. How else can you talk about something like that without putting your heart on your sleeve?

I'm glad I never served during wartime.
posted by me & my monkey at 7:56 AM on March 8 [12 favorites]


Those shots have been ringing out for most of twenty years, and will continue to ring out until everyone who was present there & then has died. Thousands, millions of lives.
There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”
posted by wenestvedt at 7:57 AM on March 8 [12 favorites]


I really liked Vonnegut as a teenager because his books wore their hearts on their sleeves. In my thirties, I was less interested because of their apparent lack of sophistication. But as I got older still, it seems to me that you really couldn't have a Vonnegut without a Dresden - a life-changing experience of horror.

I went through similar changes in attitude: teenage astonishment when I read Slaughterhouse Five and then a bunch of the others, later disillusionment when I started to notice the misogynistic attitudes and the slightly pat takes on spirituality, then a guarded appreciation for the better qualities of his writing.

Slaughterhouse really is a remarkable work. It captures the alien numbness that follows a trauma of that magnitude, and it is one of very few modern works of art that is absolutely resolute about refusing to glorify war. War these days is almost always presented with the fascist underpinnings of Struggle, of Justice, of Moral Rectitude, of Doing the Right Thing for your Country and Comrades. In Slaughterhouse, war is presented (far more accurately) as a giant Three Stooges routine interspersed with senseless butchery.

I mean, no one in that book gets to be a hero. No one is immune from ridicule, or from pity at the idiocy of their situation. There's a moment early on when Billy hears German soldiers and barking dogs in the distance. Vonnegut immediately cuts that short by revealing that the fearsome Germans are a couple of starving idiots and a farm dog named Princess. The POWs are presented as a bunch of clowns, most of all the jingoistic, rules-and-regs British officers who have been living comfortably in their playpen for most of the war (and who clean themselves with soap made from rendered human corpses). At one point, the book presents a broadside against American society and the self-loathing it inculcates in its poor people. The fact that this broadside actually humanizes poor people is immediately undercut by the fact that its author is an American Nazi.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:26 AM on March 8 [10 favorites]


Rereading in my thirties the Vonnegut books I devoured as a teen, the thing I noticed was how much I passed over the casual racism of the characters, which as a teen was the same as me passing over the casual racism of all the adults in my small white American town, but which I now see as KV's noting of how deeply ingrained into the marrow of American society racism and racial exploitation is. The bit in Slaughterhouse-Five where Billy and his mistress are talking about a fried chicken franchise, for example, or the bit in Breakfast of Champions where the workers call the steam shovel the "hundred [n-word] machine" in lieu of a horsepower rating.

(Also, I highly recommend the Audible.com version of Breakfast of Champions, masterfully read by John Malkovich)
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:04 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]


The fact that this broadside actually humanizes poor people is immediately undercut by the fact that its author is an American Nazi.

I'd blame Vonnegut for making me aware that the firebombing of Dresden was a barbaric act (in the spirit of, if not on the scale of, the holocaust). From there it was a short leap to recognize that bombing Hiroshima was probably the most barbaric act ever perpetrated in war. By 'the winners' ... us.

I also have no problem with Vonnegut choosing to write in the vernacular (and reflecting the general sentiments) of his time. It's not a shame that he didn't have access to our modern sensibilities; if he had, he might have chosen not to hold a mirror up to what 'winners' we were in those times.

Sadly, we have continued to pursue our 'winning' ways in every decade since. How lucky we are to have had a modern pop culture which allows us to so continuously ignore that reality that we could actually ask, after '911': "Why do they hate us??"

The warts that Vonnegut shows us are his and ours. Who is the fairest of them all?
posted by Twang at 3:03 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]


The fact that this broadside actually humanizes poor people is immediately undercut by the fact that its author is an American Nazi.

[Clarification: sorry, I did not mean that Vonnegut was a Nazi. The excerpt from the book that criticizes American attitudes toward the poor is presented within the text as the work of an American character who has defected to the Nazis and adores the Aryan Working Folk, but is totally fine with death camps for everyone else.]
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 3:54 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]


(Also, I highly recommend the Audible.com version of Breakfast of Champions, masterfully read by John Malkovich)

Audible's version of Slaughterhouse Five is read by James Franco. Franco reads all of Billy's lines and internal monolog flat, only altering his tone and pitch for other characters. It's a choice that really helps drive home how numb Billy was.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:08 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]


Martin Amis's The Moronic Inferno includes a really remarkable interview with Vonnegut, in which he talks about Slaughterhouse Five as the book he had to write, plus his struggle to deal with staggering personal catastrophes. Vonnegut's generous and humane sensibility emanates from the page.

Worth the purchase for that alone, but there's also a whole bunch of acerbic and acutely observed essays about 1980s America that prefigure our present state. Amis really is kind of a shit, though, hence the Alibris link.
posted by dogrose at 3:23 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


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