How does a “classic” book continue to ripple through our culture? This is the question posed by Ig Publishing’s “Bookmarked” project, which showcases contemporary authors writing about their personal experiences of well-known literary works.
Curtis Smith’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five launches the series with an extended essay that is at turns insightful and idiosyncratic, self-questioning and wry, in a manner that structurally recalls Vonnegut’s novel while retaining Smith’s distinct voice. The effect is a bit like a talented younger performer stepping up to play with a grizzled rock-and-roll grand-daddy and successfully carrying it off.
Slaughterhouse-Five is usually interpreted, reasonably enough, as a metafictional rumination of a writer trying to come to grips with his war experience. Vonnegut was a young American GI captured by the Germans; he had the misfortune to be brought to Dresden shortly before its destruction by the Allies, as well as the bizarre good luck to survive because he and other prisoners had been herded into an underground slaughterhouse meat locker, Schlachthof Fünf, the source of the novel’s title. The fact that the book highlighted a war crime by the victors, and that it was published in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, influenced the novel’s early reception.
Smith takes these facts and updates them with his own experience: post-Vietnam but not really postmodern (although he doesn’t come out and say so, he seems unimpressed with some of the fashions of his generation); troubled by the enormous growth of the American military-industrial complex and its foreign adventures; attentive to the challenges, no less complicated for being quotidian, of raising a child in a world that seems to have learned very little from the past.
With reference to Billy Pilgrim, the time-travelling protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Smith explores the perception of time, both as a matter of storytelling craft and how it can affect human experience. Some of the most powerful sections in this book concern the history of PTSD. Texts from Mesopotamia, circa 1300 BC, describe warriors haunted by the battles they’d survived and the victims who didn’t. Fast-forward to World War I and the idea of “shell shock,” which by World War II had become “combat neurosis.” And now? War still rages in Mesopotamia.
“Seeing might be believing,” Smith shrewdly observes, “but vision isn’t truth.” Elsewhere he adds, “Our memories aren’t snapshots—they’re collages pieced together to please an audience of one.” He juxtaposes the seemingly endless human ingenuity for atrocity with its capacity for decency, which is also tenacious.
He refers to a Palm Sunday sermon given by Vonnegut, who described himself as “a Christ-worshipping agnostic.” (This description might be plausibly applied to Smith himself.) In this sermon, Vonnegut chose the gospel story of the anointing, in which Jesus replies to Judas’ reproach about spending money on perfume by saying that “the poor always ye have with you.” Vonnegut observes how this phrase has been opportunistically interpreted as an excuse to ignore the poor, whereas he sees it as a “divine black joke…which allows Jesus to remain civil with Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.”
Smith addresses the contemporary American scene, where prominent Tea Party politicians loudly proclaim their Christian values along with an affinity for Ayn Rand’s fetishistic individualism. Smith underlines: “The poor will always be with us, their problems and suffering never to be erased. This question is, what are the rest of us willing to do about it?”
Still, the overall thrust here is not political. Political concerns are just one expression of humans trying to make sense of themselves. Although Slaughterhouse-Five has been read as a protest novel, it is not programmatic. Mainly it expresses perplexity at human folly.
Smith is rightly suspicious of attempts to impose an agenda. “The best books,” he affirms, “are invitations. They are time machines. They challenge us to think, to reconsider.” He also points out that they make us want to reread.
Over the years, I’ve read Slaughterhouse–Five probably five or six times. It’s part of my mental turf. Before reading Smith’s account, I wondered if I would find anything new. This, I see now, was a misplaced vanity. Smith’s work is perceptive, subtle and personal, and now, based on what I’ve learned, it’s time to return once more to the adventures of Billy Pilgrim.
Note of Disclosure: Curtis Smith has written for Entropy.