‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

An unusual friendship

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universe vs alex woods Alex Woods is an unique young boy. It’s not that he is prime material for bullying because his single mum is a clairvoyant white witch who runs a new-age shop in Glastonbury, he has a much more bizarre claim to fame that has come to dominate his early life.

When Alex was ten, he was hit on the head by a 2.3kg meteor that came through the bathroom roof. He was in a coma for thirteen days, had brain surgery and a plate put in his head. No-one thought he would survive, but he did and was quite the celebrity for a while. It left him with epilepsy, but it didn’t dim his geekiness; and he did get a meteorite out of it. Alex has to learn coping strategies for his epilepsy, helped by his consultant, Dr Enderby…

I watched my breath. I counted to fifty. I named each of the planets and major moons in turn, starting at the sun and working my way out to the Kuiper Belt. I listed every character from The Simpsons I could think of. I remained calm and alert and banished any distractions into a separate corner of my mind and focused my attention like a laser. It was a very strange experience. I told Dr Enderby that it felt like Jedi training. Dr Enderby replied that it was like Jedi training. It was a form of mediation – a way of helping my brain to stay poised and peaceful.

Later, Alex is again running from the bullies, he hides in a greenhouse which gets smashed. It belongs to Mr Petersen, a reclusive widower and Vietnam veteran who’d settled in England. Instructed by his mother to help Mr Petersen as penance for getting the greenhouse broken, the gruff old soldier and the  teenager begin to strike up a friendship which is cemented by Mr P introducing Alex to the books of his favourite author – Kurt Vonnegut.

I don’t want to tell you any more of the story, because it’s rather brilliant, and if it sounds like a book you may like, you should discover it for yourselves.

The novel begins as a light-hearted tale of friendship – the young Alex has a slight hint of Adrian Mole about him. No prior knowledge of Kurt Vonnegut is needed, but anyone who does know him will chuckle when Alex reads Breakfast of Champions. (I too read this as a teenager from the library – had to hide it from my parents at the time, as it’s full of doodles of *ahem* ‘wide-open beavers’ amongst other more normal things. Now, decades later, I can’t remember the book – only those illustrations!)

Naturally, Mr Petersen becomes a father figure to Alex, and their relationship deepens, as does the tone of the novel. What started off as funny and quirky, takes on a serious tone as things happen. Throughout it all though, as he grows up, Alex retains his essential Alex-ness which, however heart-breaking things get, (which is very), makes him a loveable and fascinating companion.

If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, you will probably like Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Vs Alex Woods, as I did. (9/10)

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I read an ARC received through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Pub Jan 31st by Hodder & Stoughton
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce