When I bought my copy of Cat’s Cradle the man behind the desk confidently told me that “I was going to love it” before going on to recommend that I give Slaughterhouse 5 a go next. I was also recently told by a very good friend that if I don’t like Slaughterhouse 5, “it’s all over,” (our friendship? The world?) so it is fair to say that expectations were high for my first foray into the work of Kurt Vonnegut. It is also fair to say that I was a bit disappointed. I do want to caveat my disappointment with the observation that I think a sense of anti-climax is more or less inevitable when you come to figures who have developed the kind of cultish following that Vonnegut has. You’re unlikely to love it with the same fervour as the person who recommended it to you and your opinion is, inevitably, going to be coloured by the enthusiasm and insistence of that recommendation. So, perhaps my sense of deflation is less to do with Vonnegut’s writing and more to do with the baggage I brought to it. But deflated I did feel. It just felt a bit ‘thin’ for want of a better word at this point – perhaps I’ll riddle my way to something less vague by the end – that not withstanding, it was also an interesting, funny and provocative read.
The story effectively charts the end of the world. John, the narrator, sets out to write a book entitled The Day the World Ended about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He is looking into the human angle of the day and entreats the children of Felix Hoenikker, father of the bomb, for stories about their father from that day. These stories lead him to an exotic island, to the practice of Bokonism and eventually to the super-weapon ice nine. The story is laced with irony, commenting with strange, unsettling detachment on the constructs and structures that humans project onto their existence. Vonnegut infuses the text with a sense of futility that, cast against the backdrop of Hiroshima, generates an uneasy embarrassment from the reader: it’s like watching a video of yourself when you were the wrong kind of drunk. Vonnegut takes humanity’s lowest moment, plays them back and forces humanity to watch. The juxtaposition of a real weapon with apocalyptic potential that has actually been deployed against people (more than once) with the fictitious ice-nine renders the former all the more horrifying. These sensations are all intensified by the characters we meet – they are unpleasant in the extreme. The result is not a world that we want to be saved.
Perhaps then, this is why I felt a bit defeated by it: it’s all so very bleak. Maybe it’s just not my thing. I am glad I read it though. I will definitely be giving Slaughterhouse 5 a go and not only for the sake of friendship but because the writing is clever, it’s wry and it made me think. ‘Thin’ definitely is the wrong word to describe it, it denies the quality of the writing and intelligence that lies beneath the story. What I think I’m getting at is that grounds for hope in this world are thin. And I’m not sure I like it.