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The Reading Life: Rediscovering Vonnegut

September 7, 2010 |  7:00 am

Vonnegut_1985
The rental house on Cape Cod where I've spent part of nearly every August since I was 9 years old has an amazing library. It's one of the appeals of the place: the opportunity to dig around in all those books, familiar and unfamiliar at once. They're not my books -- and yet, after all this time, I know them so intimately that it almost feels as if they were.

I discovered Georges Simenon in this house, one rainy afternoon when I was in my teens, and also P. G. Wodehouse, read Steinbeck's "Burning Bright" and "The Moon Is Down," worked my way through Bellow and Dickens and the collected writings of JFK. Many of these authors I've come to gather on my own shelves, but there is something about the randomness, the serendipity, of what a friend calls the guest house library, a way of simultaneously getting outside of and coming closer to oneself.

This summer, I found myself drawn to Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five," which I hadn't read in at least 20 years. As a kid in this house, I nurtured a Vonnegut fixation, devouring his books in their uniform Dell mass-market paperback editions: "Cat's Cradle," "The Sirens of Titan," "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," "Welcome to the Monkey House." I spent decades hunting for his out-of-print collection  "Canary in a Cat House," and even made a few tentative adolescent efforts to track him down.

Vonnegut, I knew, had lived in Barnstable, Mass., just a dozen or so miles down Route 28 from where we were; by the time I started reading him, he had already left for New York, but his ex-wife was listed in the phone book, and I used to look her up on occasion, marveling at the closeness, the proximity this brought me, although I was always too polite, or too intimidated, to call.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" was one of those transformative books, the kind that shook up everything I thought I knew. Inspired by Vonnegut's experiences in World War II -- where, as a POW, he survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany -- it is a cry from the soul, an anti-war book that understands itself to be a futile gesture, even as it makes the effort all the same.

"You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?" someone asks early in the novel. "I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?'" What this means, Vonnegut explains, "was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too."

So why write the novel? The answer resides in the simplest truth. War, Vonnegut means to tell us, is not ennobling or honorable; it is terrifying, chaotic, the expression of an absurd universe, and even more, of the absurdity of humankind. Soldiers are children, sent to fight by "glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men." It is for this reason that he subtitles the novel "The Children's Crusade," promising a friend's wife that, should he ever finish it, "there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra and John Wayne."

Such promises, of course, were made many years ago -- in another country, another world. Sinatra and Wayne are long dead, and Dresden has been relegated to the mists of history. We have new wars now, new children's crusades, yet reading "Slaughterhouse-Five" again, with its story of Dresden juxtaposed against that of Billy Pilgrim, a survivor who later finds himself "unstuck in time," I felt myself connecting to Vonnegut's phantasmagoria in a whole new way.

I first read the novel, after all, in this very house, when I was 12 or 13. To return to it 36 years later was to confront viscerally the central point of the book, which is that time is not a continuum but a collection of simultaneous moments, that everything we have ever done and everything we will ever do co-exists within us all at once.

In that sense, the experience was much like that of a Tralfamadorian novel; Tralfamadore is the planet on which, throughout "Slaughterhouse-Five," Billy spends much of his time. There, books are written “in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. … [E]ach clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message -- describing a situation, a scene. … There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

The same, it might be said, was true for me re-reading Vonnegut, in a summer rental that has always felt a lot like home.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Kurt Vonnegut at his home in New York in 1985. Credit: Oliver Morris / Los Angeles Times

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