Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

I picked up Slaughterhouse 5 and skimmed the synopsis on the back. It told me that the book was about the Dresden bombings in World War II. Sure, I thought, I could read something like that. So I was somewhat surprised when, not long after I had started reading, the protagonist had already travelled back in time to another planet where green aliens – that look like toilet plungers – are telling him that, in the perfect book, ‘there is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects’. To me, that sounds more like the end of the universe than a good read. But Vonnegut ensures that Slaughterhouse 5 meets the standards set by his fictional aliens. And, you know what, it’s great...

Billy has become unhinged in time, finding himself travelling back and forward into various moments of his unfortunate life. As a young, gawky teenager he is sent to fight the Germans in the Second World War. Completely unprepared and unwilling to fight, he promptly gets captured by the Nazis and, as a prisoner of war, is imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. Soon after Billy arrives, the city gets destroyed by the Allies in the horrific and now infamous bombing of 1945. He finds it a scarring experience. Later in life, and now back in America, Billy is a successful, married Optician, but unfortunately finds himself the sole survivor of a catastrophic plane crash. To add to the bad luck, he later gets abducted by aliens - the Tralfamadorians - and taken light years away to their planet in the sky. There he lives in a glass hemisphere, and is forced to make love to fellow abductee, and naked movie star, Montana Wildhack.

Time travelling, Aliens and WAR 

Vonnegut tells the reader in the first chapter that he has wanted to write a book about the Dresden bombings all his life. In the next breath, though, he claims that there is ‘nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’. He then spends the rest of the book studiously writing around the Dresden bombings. It’s barely mentioned. In fact, the reader is made of aware of the event, and its impact on the world, not by an emotional tear-jerking description, but through the effect it has on just one person’s life – a survivor. Even then, we’re not privy to this survivor’s emotional world. We don’t see him haunted by what he has seen, or crying his guts out to his friends. Instead, we see its effect in the very structure of novel: he simply can’t get away from it. Billy is pulled back and forward through time, always returning to the most banal and brutal moment of his life: the destruction of Dresden.

The time travelling worked for me. Symbolically it packs a punch, and it allows for a plot structure that is nice and fluid. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the aliens in the same way. What for art thou, little green Tralfamadorians? The aliens do allow an interesting outside perspective on, not just the war, but all other human endeavours. They presented a fatalistic view-point, exposing just how inevitable and meaningless it all is. And the planet, light years away, seems to be representative of Vonnegut's own substantial travellings into the world of science-fiction. Overall, I found it interesting that Billy struggles to get any temporal space from Dresden, but, somehow in distance, he manages to get thousands of light-years away. Billy is slipping around in time, but the aliens tell him that there is no time. Symbolic, cryptic, and green, the Tralfamadorians are a mystery.

Douglas Adams – of all people – provides a good answer to it. In replying to a reader's question about what really happened in one of his books, he replied: ‘The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind... There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter... It doesn’t exist.’ So, with that in mind, perhaps there’s no point studiously trying to understand why the aliens were there at all. Perhaps they just were. Perhaps everything just is. If that sounds a bit like nihilistic fatalism, perhaps it merely echoes the Tralfamadorians' sense of meaning-free timelessness...

The End, My friend

Slaughterhouse 5 isn’t very emotionally engaging. The description of the bombing takes up less than half a page, and there’s no account of any of the characters having a strong reaction to what they’ve seen. I enjoyed the book, and I found the narrative structure novel and fresh. But for a book about war, it didn’t come up and punch me in the guts. Maybe that’s the whole damn point. The meta-lesson is that however big the punch was, it would never be big enough. And, if you weren’t there, you probably don’t really care about it. Perhaps Vonnegut's right, you can’t write anything intelligent about a bombing like Dresden. After all what can you really say, other than that massacres are very horrible and senseless? And we all know that anyway. So it is.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Laura (Vera Caspary)

“In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”

Laura was written by Vera Caspary, who was also my Dad’s Grandfather’s wife. The story is less well known as a book, and more as a film by Otto Preminger, which was one of the first ever film noir. Actually, perhaps it isn’t well known at all these days, which is why I did a double take when I saw it stocked in Foyles in central London. Within minutes I was at the till, and I had finished reading it within hours and metres from that moment.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because it’s a first rate twister, but here’s a little flavour. A glamorous girl is found dead in her apartment, and it sure looks like murder. Mark, a hardboiled cliche of a detective, is called to the scene. He gives it a cynical once over. There ain’t much promising there, and he doubts the leads will amount to a hill of beans. The dead dame’s friend starts sniffing round the place too. He’s a fat thespish author who makes a living writing books about God knows what. Mark takes him to dinner to pump him for information, but doesn’t like the glint in his eye. The things he’ll do for for this damned job, he thinks but for some reason can’t get his mind off the dead girl. She sure was pretty. Sophisticated too from the look of her apartment. Mike begins to feel a strange connection with this once-elegant broad. He shakes his head vigorously, weird stuff like this just doesn’t happen to him. ‘Keep you eyes on the job Mike’ he tells himself. But then things take a turn for the down-right mysterious – and fast – when a girl knocks on the door of the apartment. It’s the last person Mike ever expected to see, and suddenly the case blows wide open. Mike looks at his watch with a sigh, ‘this’ll take some time’, he thinks dolefully ‘and just when the overtime sheet’s been suspended too.’

Hidden Wisdom

Is there any hidden wisdom in there? Not really. Some books are written to be thought about. Or to be written about. Others want to teach you about life, or else make some dull and obvious philosophical point. But some books are completely and unashamedly written to be read. Laura is one of those kind of books, and it’s glorious. I lost four hours to it. The time just went. I was sitting on a bench on the South Bank looking at little pleasure boats and the sunlight gleaming off the Thames. I opened Laura, and four hours later, I looked up. The book was finished, and I was bathed in a milky twilight. The time vanished as comprehensively as if I had been watching a film, or dreaming. I opened the book, got in, had a roller coaster of a ride, got off and took the tube home. And that’s exactly the kind of engagement the book wants: Laura is a good time girl.


Laura struck me as very similar to Hitchcock’s Vertigo - in both there is a similar theme of lust and obsession, and a detective-type character falls for a girl who he thought was dead. The intended victim and the murderer are very similar in both stories. The plots are different, but the structure of both films is nearly the same. They could almost double up for each other in an elaborate murder plot...

The Last Word

Since it was written by a relative, I felt almost a connection with Laura’s eponymous heroine from the beyond the page. It was like she was reaching out to me, and I couldn’t help thinking that Laura was not some dead-press character, but a real living person. Later I discovered that it was only her look-alike that was fictional, and that, in a staggering twist of metafiction, the real Laura was alive and living in Islington, safe from the ravaging occupational dangers of life in a detective story. Safe, but for how long?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Jane Eyre

"What’s your name?"


Jane Eyre"

And with that, I expected Ms. Eyre to tuck her beretta back inside her gown, before ordering a martini with very specific serving instructions. Because with a bit of training, I think Jane Eyre would make a good 007. She’s clearly got the courage for it, but I’m unclear whether she would find the idea of being a superspy morally repugnant. Of course, scared as I’m to receive even imagined vituperations from Jane Eyre’s eponymous heroine, I’ll refrain from any more action-hero comparisons, for now...

Not having read Jane Eyre felt like a big hole in my life. The kind of all-consuming black hole that leads one to break down weeping in the supermarket before panic buying shredded wheat. I’ve previously read two pieces of fan fiction – the Wide Sargasso Sea (eurgh), and the Eyre Affair (awesome fun) – so I was long overdue to snuggle down on the sofa with Jane Eyre, a bottle of scotch, and some evening primrose oil to calm me down if it all got too much.

Jane Eyre tells the tale of a plain girl, brought up short on love, but long on pluck. After being sent to a tough school - somewhere between Twist and Copperfield in severity -  she goes to work as a Governess in a large, and largely abandoned home. One day, the master returns; a severe, crotchety, particular gentleman named Mr. Rochester. He is quickly drawn to Jane, and singles her out as someone he is comfortable talking to. A hop, skip and a tumble later sees Jane and Rochester in love, and, what is more, betrothed to be married. Of course, circumstance gifts them testing times, and the path of their loves runs not smooth. So, can these luck-crossed lovers make it across the desert of despair? Will they endure the outrageous fortunes that hope slings them? The answer is, emphatically, YES, and as Jane so winningly tells us, ‘Reader, I married him’.

Wonderfulness baked in

Buried in this book is a great big dollop of optimism. It’s been alleged that in double blind trials, Jane Eyre fairs somewhere between lithium and barbiturates at helping to cure depression. Unfortunately, no one bothered to try and get legal clearance since, now out of copyright, there’s just no money to be made in its marketisation. Damn you drug companies, you profit seeking fiends!

Anyway, although Jane Eyre has an almost savage facade, much like its main character, the book is 100% heart. Jane isn’t just a woman, she is also a plain, slight Governess, and back then, all of those attributes were seen to diminish her value. Obviously they don’t, and Jane knows it; commanding equality and respect wherever she finds herself. I worried for a while that Rochester seemed to see Jane a bit like a pet or plaything, something to be bossed around. He married ‘below his station’, seemingly purposefully, because he prefered his wife to have ‘pliability’.  But in the end, Jane thoroughly owns him - taking care of him, baiting him and in nearly all senses ‘wearing the trousers’.  

For me, Jane Eyre was like finding an old World War 1 unexploded bomb under my house. I felt I was looking at something that was once explosive but no longer. I imagine that when it was written, the straight-talking, equality-claiming Jane Eyre was a molotov-cocktail into an age of stuffy, cigar-filled gentleman’s clubs. But these days, it’s a bit toothless. I mean, the idea of Governess marrying a richer man isn’t exactly fall-off-your-chair shocking. So I appreciated the novel’s once-revolutionary nature, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I think this fighting book has been transformed by time into a simple society romance. And that’s good and bad. Bad, because the book is less impactful than once it was, but good because society has moulded round it and overall become a much more equal and much fairer place.