When I mentioned that passage in “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut the other day, I realized I have not written any entries about Vonnegut. I guess it never occurred to me that there could be anyone who hasn’t read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. If you haven’t, you’re lucky, because now you can.
They’re all great, but “Slaughterhouse Five” is the best, with “Cat’s Cradle” and “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” and “Sirens of Titan” and “Breakfast of Champions” all in a dead heat for second.
“Slaughterhouse Five” is, in part, about Vonnegut’s experience in World War II. He was sent to the front as a scout and was captured almost immediately in the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.
As a prisoner of war he was taken to Dresden where he survived an Allied firebombing raid in which more than a million people died. Ironically, the Germans had been keeping the American prisoners in these underground slaughterhouses, and of course Vonnegut was in Number Five.
One of the great ironies in the book is when the prisoners are brought up to help clean up the wreckage and Bernard O’Hare, a friend of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, sees a teapot that’s identical to one he has back home in New Jersey. Dresden, of course, used to be famous for china. Anyway O’Hare picks up the teapot and winds up getting shot for looting.
These wartime memories are interspersed with other episodes in Billy Pilgrim’s later life because Billy is always getting mixed up and traveling back and forth in time. Sometimes he even goes into the future, when he is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, along with a beautiful movie starlet and the Tralfamadoreans put them in a giant dome and stand around hoping to watch them mate.
Vonnegut wrote a lot of science fiction early in his career which was not too successful, so he creates a spoof of himself, an immortal character named Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction writer who appears in many of his books. In one of them, Trout has written a book about aliens who come to Earth to bring greetings from their planet, but the only way they can communicate is by farting and tap dancing.
“Cat’s Cradle” may be his most popular work, and it really is hilarious. The plot is too complicated to explain, but it involves a small Caribbean island with a ruthless dictator and a forbidden religion and a secret substance called Ice-9 that causes water to solidify at 45 degrees Farenheit.
The ruthless dictator, of course, is described as “one of Freedom’s greatest friends” by representatives of the American government. The penalty for double parking — or any other offense, however minor — is “the hook.”
In this book Vonnegut also invents a number of wonderful new words including “wampeter” — an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve, like the Holy Grail; “foma” — harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls, such as “Prosperity is just around the corner;” and, my favorite, “granfalloon” — a proud and meaningless association of human beings, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Anyway here’s the passage from “Slaughterhouse Five” I mentioned. I should explain that because Billy Pilgrim travels back and forth in time, he sometimes winds up watching movies backwards.
“He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
“The formation then flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.
“The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again and made everything and everybody as good as new.
“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel containers were taken from their racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mostly women who did this work.
“The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”