Slaughterhouse-Five

or The Children's Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Delacorte Press, 186 pp., $5.95.

I'D LIKE TO relate Kurt Vonnegut's latest book to the strike. Doesn't it seem that, now, whenever we turn to our minds to do a little thinking we always find the same unexplainable desire to go do political stuff? The politics of the strike are so much with us that most of the time it's near impossible to be at ease if we're not at the rally. And these days nearly every hour there's a rally we're not going to if we're not there. (I hear a muffled echo out my window; is it a chanting crowd or just the traffic?)

Throughout Vonnegut's book there is a persistent and unavoidable sense of preoccupation similar to the feeling of obligation we now feel towards strike activities. What he is obligated to in Slaughterhouse-Five is death. This isn't a very easy thing for a fatalist to be obligated to Fatalism (that is, the belief that the "reasons" why things happen to us are a series of random events beyond our control) serves us particularly well as a transition--to, for example, move us philosophically from event to event in our existence. When someone's existence terminates in the book (and just about everyone who is introduced dies for us, too), Vonnegut says, "So it goes." A hundred and thirty-five thousand (135,000) residents of Dresden die in one sentence, so it goes.

Now, Kurt Vonnegut doesn't really want to write a war book about death. That's why its presence hangs throughout this book as something he is unable to avoid. He takes off the first chapter to explain he doesn't want to write about war. He just has to. The book is more a thing of his environment than of himself? But we, for some reason, don't believe him when we read him saying that war is a topic he's been forced to deal with. I don't know Why we don't believe it. But, for some reason, we never believe that kind of jazz from an author. So we're still surprised to find that what we're reading is a funny, different kind of story.

YOUR BASIC Vonnegut book shows you what cause and effect are like through the example of someone's attempt to live. This one, Slaughter-house-Five, is more of an illustrated essay. It's more painful and less mystifying complex than, say, The Sirens of Titan. But that's because we're not supposed to be out for good times this trip; that's the way it goes. Here's part of what we find on this time out:

Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.

Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.

And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.

And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.

My father died many years ago now--of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.

And as if to reinforce the universality of his appraisal of war of its associated deaths, Vonnegut tosses in people and places from all his other books. Howard W. Campbell, the Nazi was criminal and star of Mother Night, visits this book's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Dresden to deliver one of the best passages in the book, a critique of the American fightingman. Eliot Roseater, of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater fame, shares a mental hospital ward and his favorite author with Pilgrim. Ilium, N.Y., hometown of Cat's Cradle and Player Piano, makes its third appearance in that role. And, finally, various progeny and siblings of Winston Niles Rumford, co-star of The Sirens of Titan, motorboat past Billy Pilgrim's bedroom window on his wedding night.

I'd like to remark on how carefully I think Slaughterhouse-Five was written. I've always thought that the best rock 'n' roll groups were the ones that worked on it a lot; the best writers, the ones that worked on it a lot; the best writers, the ones that threw most of it away. It would guess Vonnegut edits lots. This book is really great in its detail. Writing, especially in a style of such overwhelming simplicity as Vonnegut's, is a matter of manipulating prepositions, adverbs, and, above all, articles. In the contemporary American idiom, at least, the whole punch of what you say depends on the order you put your little clauses and stuff in. After messing around with arranging sentences for a long time, you reach a kind of ecstasy when you finally dip into and out of a sentence as smooth as a yoyo. Sometime after The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut found out how it goes.

I've often thought that Vonnegut is so popular among us youths because his mind is bent by the exact same flashes that clutter the minds of the TV - weaned, let's-go-take-over-that-building - next generation. For instance, I was grumbling just the other day with some revolutionary cohorts about how we could best spread out culture once we took over. It was decided to pave over the whole of Southeast Asia to make way for one gigantic Frosty's, the world's biggest. Then I read that Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, the character we identify with and live, helped put together his little empire with a part interest in Tastee-Freeze frozen custard stands. This type of coincidence of inspiration is what kinds my age achieve all the time with Vonnegut.

LISTEN: the most fascinating thing about this book is the way Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorian understanding of time to deal with the importance of death. Tralfamadore is the planet 446,120,000,000,000,000 miles away, to which Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped. Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments of time in the same way we can look at a whole range of the Rocky Mountains. For those who can travel in time (Billy Pilgrim can and does) any particular moment can be visited. Nothing is "future"; nothing is "past." All moments exist, always have, and always will. The disastrous murders and wars of the future, for example, can't be avoided because they already exist, they've been decided. They can only be visited or not visited.

This means that death isn't an "event" that "happens" to you. But you death is part of the way you're defined, part of the way you always exist. If you think of yourself as being "alive" at this particular moment, that's just because you are visiting this part of you.

Free Will, it can be seen, is a concept whose existence depends on an individual's not knowing what "the future" will be like. (For Tralfamadorians, the future can be defined as those moments whose determining conditions are taking shape in the moment presently being visited. We say the future comes "after" now.) If we can understand time to be an entity that always exists in its entirety, then the irritating concept of free will dissolves into pleasant nothingness.

Vonnegut passes on the information that pieces together Billy Pilgrim's life in a Tralfamadorian sense of order, not a chronological one. Instead of telling Billy's life "as it happened," he describes events that might be most enlightening when compared. The actual story of the book depends on the chronology of capture and eventual freedom during World War II. But Vonnegut's ideas don't depend on it--he tells us what the end of the book will be in the first chapter.

Because we cannot travel in time, we can never really understand time as the Tralfamadorians do. But, for their part, they can never comprehend the way in which we see events to be ordered. It's a matter of perspective. --JOHN G. SHORT