Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade:
A Duty Dance with Death

[audiobook, read by Ethan Hawke]
(Delacorte/Seymour, 1968; Lawrence; Caedmon, 2003)

'If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice.' — Billy Pilgrim

I read Slaughterhouse-Five so many years ago that I barely could remember what the plot was a few days ago when I was looking at this audiobook for the first time. I also realized that, though I had seen the film version much more recently, that too had left but a very faint impression in me mind. (No snickering now!) It's not that I don't like Vonnegut, as I loved — and still remember fairly vividly — his novel Cat's Cradle, in which really odd characters chase each other around in search of the world's most important and dangerous substance, a new form of ice called Ice Nine that freezes at room temperature. And his Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of previously published short fiction, is still as fresh as it when first printed thirty-five years ago. So why is Slaughterhouse-Five a novel that simply won't stay in me consciousness? (I said, no snickering! No single malt on the house for you unless you sit down and pay attention.) It was that question that led me to say that I'd review this audiobook.

How familiar are you with this novel? Not so you remember it clearly ? Oh, well. You, too, encountered it in school as required reading, eh? Thought so. A horrible way to encounter anything worthwhile. (The Bloomites might think there's a canon of English language literature that should be taught in schools, but what there really is is a series of writings that are presented so boringly that student and teacher alike nod off. Or at the very best, they don't remember anything 'tall even a few years later. Quick — what do you remember of MacBeth other than the blood on Lady MacBeth's hands and the witches three? Not much? Thought so.) Kurt Vonnegut at the age of eighty has become one of the Grand Old Men of literature — a slightly eccentric writer who's more than a bit ornery, but 'lovable' none the less. (If anyone ever calls me lovable, put me out of me misery quickly. Or at least medicate me with a dram of single malt. It's what we call folks that we think have outlived their usefulness.)

Kurt Vonnegut reached that status fairly early, more or less by the publication of this novel, which brought him to national prominence when it made number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. And a few years later, he made the neat trick of getting awarded a M.A. by the University of Chicago in recognition for Cat's Cradle's contribution to the field of cultural anthropology. Selling well and liked (mostly) by critics — what more ccould a writer want? (No smart-arsed remarks about getting rich! He wasn't doing too badly in that regard either.)

But let's backtrack. What is Slaughterhouse-Five with its queer subtitle of 'or the Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death' about anyways? Contemporary Authors No. 49 says about this novel that 'In Slaughterhouse Five, — Or the Children's Crusade, Vonnegut finally delivers a complete treatise on the World War II bombing of Dresden. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a very young infantry scout who is captured in the Battle of the Bulge and quartered in a Dresden slaughterhouse where he and other prisoners are employed in the production of a vitamin supplement for pregnant women. During the February 13, 1945, firebombing by Allied aircraft, the prisoners take shelter in an underground meat locker. When they emerge, the city has been leveled and they are forced to dig corpses out of the rubble. The story of Billy Pilgrim is the story of Kurt Vonnegut, who was captured and survived the firestorm in which 135,000 German civilians perished, more than the number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.' Unlike Vonnegut, who was stuck dealing with the Hell that was now Dresden, Billy Pilgrim goes tripping through time and space itself. Or at least it appears he does. Is Billy fuckin' nuts? Or is he really adrift in time and space,a sort of Dr. Who without his TARDIS?

Ok, it is, to quote Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, a horrorshow. And quite possibly one of the queerest fantasies ever written, as I for one firmly hold that Billy Pilgrim is indeed tripping madly in his mind to escape the horrors of post-apocalypse Dresden. (It is worth noting here that historians with access to files long sealed have discovered that the 'Good Germans' of peaceful Dresden were building munitions everywhere, from cathedrals to schools. There are no innocents in war. Maybe Vonnegut grasped that, as 'The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death' certainly suggests a familiarity with the danse macabre.)

More single malt? With or without a splash of water? Without? Good lass!

So you want to know how the audiobook is? Not bad at all. Not as interesting as the abridged version read by Vonnegut himself some time ago, but Ethan Hawke has a good reading voice — full of inflection, but never shrill. As befits the legacy of Caedmon, where such writers as Dylan Thomas were recorded over a half century ago, the production is crisp with nary an acoustic problem anywhere. Harper Audio, part of HarperCollins, is now the place Caedmon calls home, a fine place indeed. All four CDs are attractively designed, as is the packaging, which has scant liner notes, but does have a brief look at Caedmon, Vonnegut, the novel, and Hawke. Here the packaging, like the Lyra's Oxford audiobook, looks sturdy enough to hold up for some years to come.

I can honestly say that the Slaughterhouse-Five which made almost no impression on me as either a printed work or a film definitely made an impression here. Again, I can compare it to Philip Pullman's Lyra's Oxford, which was released in both chapbook and audiobook formats, and was much better for me as a listening experience. Now, that's surprising, as I usually detest audiobooks — even Neil Gaiman's Coraline didn't work for me as an audiobook, but others on staff here did like it.

Ok, go listen to it. Maybe, just maybe, you'll forget those horrid lit courses you had so many years ago. And if you do, perhaps you will approach Vonnegut as something to enjoy!

[Jack Merry]