Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007 and whose cranky persona I try to emulate whenever possible (my friends are not amused), is on my mind these days, so indulge me as I drone on and on about his books. This post is from a 2010 banned books series on my other blog. 2013’s Banned Books Week is coming up: Sep 22-28.
Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969).
The full title is generally omitted from most listings, so I’ve included it here, to give Vonnegut his full due.
The ALA website used to include a lengthy history of this book’s challenges, bannings, burnings, and the general uproar that has accompanied it along the way. But as Billy Pilgrim would say, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.”
What people have objected to: Some sex (no surprise, with about half of it being observed by the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, but also a photo of bestiality is described [Horrors!]), some violence (no surprise, since this is, after all, about WWII), some anti-religious ideas (no surprise, period).
The complaints bring two scenes to my mind. One dates from my 7th or 8th grade (we’re talking the 1960s here), when a friend would jokingly cover her ears and shout “Oh, my virgin ears!” whenever anyone else swore. The other is Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, in Casablanca, saying “I’m shocked — Shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here!” as he pockets his winnings at the table.
In other words, what did people expect from KV, Jr., possibly the crankiest (and funniest) science fiction writer ever? In the edition found at my local libe, there’s a 1994 Preface in which KV refers to one well-known pundit as an “owlish nitwit” (because the pundit had suggested that Slaughterhouse Five “trivialized the Holocaust”).
There’s no question that KV is out to offend. One sentence often objected to is: “The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.” Sex, religion and violence in one blow! A hat trick! The trifecta of objectionable writing. Kudos, KV!
Another typically snarky section reveals a curious take on the crucifixion:
Rosewater was on the next bed, reading, and Billy drew him into the conversation, asked him what he was reading this time. ¶So Rosewater told him. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low. ¶But the Gospels actually taught this: ¶Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.
Trout’s book continues by suggesting that Jesus should NOT have been born the son of God, but instead “a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had,” but still doing and saying all the same stuff. Then,
… just before the nobody died [on the cross], the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!
Time travel. Aliens who study earthlings the way we study animals in a lab. If we could see time the way the Trafalmadorians do, we’d see our entire lives at once. Always alive and always dead; always doing exactly what we do, because we’ve always done it and always will do it.
As I sign off, I quote the Tralfamadorians: Farewell. Hello. Farewell. Hello.
The problem with reading book-blogs (and the Reviews section in newspapers) is finding recommendations from writers you rate for books you haven’t got. I’ve never been particularly drawn to Vonnegut but you’ve persuaded me that I oughtn’t to give him a miss!
I’m so glad — but I also hope you’re not disappointed. I would hate to mislead any reader. However, it was reviews that got me into WG Sebald and Eric Kraft — someday I may have the nerve to post something about them.