Thursday, 23 June 2011

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse Five

So it goes...
 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is a book overloaded with genres and satirical wit. Part science fiction thriller, part war-journal, all tied up with elements of time travel and pre-determined events, it crams in a lot of information for something that is under 200 pages in length. It focuses on Billy Pilgrim, a soldier during World War 2, who appears to flit back and forth along his own time line experiencing himself before, after and during captivity by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. A race of aliens, know as Tralfamadorians (who resemble upright toilet plungers with one green eye) abduct Billy and teach him about forth dimensions. Confused? It’s a bit of a mind-screw to say the least.


I’m not sure if there was a part of me that didn’t ‘get’ this book – I think perhaps a ‘me’ in another dimension probably understood it and herald it as “the greatest thing since Halo Reach.” I got quite hung up on the time travel aspect, which I’m afraid is going to reveal my ignorance, as I viewed the book and Pilgrim’s jumping around not as something like a series of cuts in a tv show or film (which, after discussion - it perhaps was written as this, so it goes). I viewed or experienced Pilgrim's life as a  progressive piece – he was ACTUALLY travelling in time from my perspective, begging the question – why didn’t anyone say “where the hell did you come from?” every time he popped into view. Then I came to understand – Pilgrim is perhaps everywhere – he is existing all the time on his own time line, everything that is happening to him is happening at the same time, including his death, even though he’s not really dead, because as the Tralfamadorians state, “at some point you are both dead and alive all the time” – Aliens, eh? Bunch of forth dimension wackjobs if you ask me.

There’s not much to say about Billy Pilgrim; a character that was fairly one-dimensional, who was for all intensive purposes, trapped to face inevitability. He was nothing more than a porter guiding the reader through his mind; one that was so fragmented and disjointed due to being unstuck in time. He showed little or almost no emotion; playing the part of someone struck dumb and seemed devoid of any real warmth and feeling. I felt myself not really caring for the character, which had no real life. In fact, I found I pitied him more than anything.

I admire Vonnegut’s style – his constant use of the arc words, “so it goes”, his inclusion of an author avatar in the form of Kilgore Trout (a man that has a militia of paper boys under his command because he’s too old and lazy to deliver them himself). The way he constantly mentioned the fate of Edgar Derby, laying it on so thick, you could have built a house with the amount it was referenced – and then Vonnegut has Derby shot in a throw-away sentence, leaving you wondering the point to such a build up but admiring the way such a character is so heavily referenced and then dispatched like someone crossing out an offending line of text.

Part of me wonders if the book is all about acceptance – it’s about resigning yourself to a fate that you know is going to happen, so why bother changing it. That’s the attitude the Tralfamadorians have – why bother, when you know you might as well make the most of what you’ve got and be happy. I suppose this is easy to say for something that resembles a toilet plunger on legs; I mean, life can't get any worse, right?

Thursday, 2 June 2011


Moby Dick by Herman Melville, is considered one of the Great American Novels. Published in 1851, it tells the tale of a sailor named Ishmael and details his experiences onboard the whaling ship, the Pequod. Much of the main focus of the novel is on the fanatical, one-legged Captain Ahab, who is seeking revenge on Moby Dick, the sperm whale that destroyed his last boat and left him crippled. Apparently based on a true story of a whaling ship The Essex that was attacked by a sperm whale at sea.


So, we just finished reading Moby Dick. Four of us made it to the end, which is pretty good going - it’s a famously hard book. Most people who pick it up don’t finish it, and most of the people who finish it are confused by it. It’s a classic novel, but it might not be a good book.

Funnily enough, there’s a book group in Bedford who are tackling Moby Dick as well. I know this because my Dad goes to an education centre for retired people in Bedford, and some of his friends are doing Melville’s tale of the whale in their book club. These are all old, smart people, and most of them sound like they are completely lost with the book. But it’s one of those books, right? The sort of book that you are supposed to read in book clubs.

Next up for our book club is Kurt Vonnegurt’s Slaughterhouse 5. I’m really looking forward to that. I haven’t read a lot of Vonnegurt, but I’ve read a few. There was a time in my life when I only read scifi, specifically scifi set in deep space, and when I ran out of those I started reading other things. One of those other things was a few Kurt Vonnegurt books, which I enjoyed.

A few years ago I was on a long train journey, and the woman sat next to me was reading Slaughterhouse 5.
“Oh wow, Kurt Vonnegurt!” I said to the not-unattractive woman, thinking she had some nerd credentials that I could bond with. “I really like his work.”
“I’m reading it for my book club,” she said, “and I’m really hating it.”

After Slaughterhouse 5, we’ll all be seeking out copies of “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, (ASHOTIU) [1] by Marina Lewycka. I’m not looking forward to this book. To me, it looks like the sort of thing that is supposedly worth reading, but will end up boring the snot out of me. A few years ago I would have dismissed it out of hand for having no spaceships, but I’m a bit more mature these days. What it does have, however, is the full backing of the Bedfordshire Library Service, as ASHOTIU [2] is one of the books in their Reading Groups Collection.

The Reading Groups collection is a list of books that Bedfordshire libraries has multiple copies of, so they can be lent out en masse to book clubs like us. Well, not quite like us, because we are a bad-ass book club and we don’t take no snot-boring books. Apart from this one [3].

Personally, I enjoyed Moby Dick. It was mostly a good book, which was good enough for me. But it’s obviously one of those books that people in book clubs feel they should read, as is Slaughterhouse 5, as is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
This is weird, because there are a lot of books. I mean, of all the books ever written, how come we end up mining this vein of similar material for book clubs? Why are we all reading the same stuff?

That’s why I’m not going to waste your time giving you my review of Moby Dick. Smarter people than me have written about Meville’s opus. Instead, I’m going to give you a list of other book. Instead, I’d like to use this space to leave a list of books that are good, but not ordinarily read by book clubs. If you’ve got suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

[1] Bless you
[2] Bless you. Aw, you must have caught the sniffles.
[3] And Sebastian Faulk’s shit-awful “A Night in December”, which is almost an argument for book-burning because of it’s fucking middle-class smugness.

Pete's Book Suggestions:
1 - Corvus, by Esther Woolfson - I'm hearing amazing things about this memoir of raising a crow. It's a non-fiction book about animals, which is pretty far away from the regular book-club territory, whilst still being fairly mainstream...

2 - Bone, by Jeff Smith - the epic comic tale of the 1990s and early 2000s, which has a comprehensive website at I actually cried at one point when I read this. The only downside is that it's kinda expensive because it's an extremely large comic book

3 - For I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison - Ellison, the bad boy of SF, wrote this seminal short story of science fiction in 1967. I've never read it, but the wikipedia entry gives me the heebie jeebies.



I didn't enjoy Moby Dick. I'm not one to shy away from classic literature (I mean I studied English at university, so that would be a pretty poor choice if I did), but I'd put Melville's novel in the same box as James Joyce's Ulysses (which I did attempt once and didn't get very far with), in that it's one of those books that is notoriously difficult to finish. Oh well, maybe one day Joyce.
Anyway, I did manage to finish this and I'm pretty proud of myself for it, just because it was such a long, hard slog. I can safely say this book is just not my cup of tea and because of that I'm not even going to attempt a proper review. This book requires serious academic analysis before you can even scratch the surface and begin to appreciate all of what Melville is trying to say here, and even though I didn't personally enjoy it I can still appreciate that technically speaking it is a work of brilliance. If you seriously want to read Moby Dick and think you may enjoy it go and find some essays on it first and really get stuck in.
If you have absolutely no interest in the history of the whaling industry then the chances of you finishing are doubtful (the ratio is about 20% actual story and 80% whaling facts). You also don't get to see THE whale until page 446 and the story ends on page 469.

My copy also tells me that this is: “the greatest novel ever written by an American.” Well, I can think of a few American writers that I would read over before I'd contemplate picking up Melville's Moby Dick again: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Poe, Hawthorne, Capote, Kerouac, Lee, Salinger, Yates, Chandler, Cain, Hammett, McCoy, Alcott...
… I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

And ignore Pete and his crankiness, I'm optimistic about the next couple of book club choices, but then, nothing could be worse than that damn Warlock book a few posts back.