Originality squared

Slaughterhouse 5

By Kurt Vonnegut

Every so often you come across a novel that is so dazzling in its originality and imagination that it leaves you breathless. Slaughterhouse 5 is one such novel. Its uniqueness comes not in the way its characters behave or what they say or where they live. Any writer who tries too hard on creating new modes for these elements is going to forget how to tell a story. No, in this novel, Vonnegut’s originality is much more insidious. It’s the way that Vonnegut sat down one day and said to himself, ‘I’ll write a book about the bombing of Dresden and about a man who is kidnapped by aliens with no concept of time, and it will show the horror and futility of war.’

Now, that’s a man after my own heart. There’s the originality. It’s not imaginative to call your aliens ‘Tralfamadorians’; anyone can make up silly names for alien races. It’s not even imaginative to kidnap a human and display him on a distant planet as a kind of zoological specimen; anyone could probably think that up – and I’m sure hundreds of sci-fi writers have done just that. No, Vonnegut’s imagination is much broader: in less than 300 pages, he tears apart several genres and even changes the concept of the novel.

It is a great thrill to read such a book, because it is so different from all your other experiences of reading books. And yet it is grounded in some very real facts – the bombing of Dresden being the main one. The beauty of centring a story about one such awful event is that it becomes relentless and unavoidable. You know Dresden is destroyed and that it’s a bad thing, and so the build-ups to it, connected through our protagonist’s time travelling-alien-adventure plot, become more and more devastating. Moreover, it allows Vonnegut to retain his focus and not to be concerned with every other horrible war. He doesn’t need to do that. Dresden is bad enough. Focusing on that is almost as brave as writing a novel that the booksellers won’t know how to categorise. This book is great fun and a real thrill.

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