Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Name of the World and Slaughter House Five

I couldn't sleep last night(story of my life) so I decided to finish both books. I can't say which book I enjoyed reading more. They were both nearly the same: a man, his life, and how he deals with it. They were both short (under 200 pages), both authors pull serious literary weight, and both authors male.

Name of the World first then: Michael Reed has been floating through his life after his wife and daughter died four years ago. On the outside he puts one foot in front of the other and plays the part of College Professor, while on the inside his mind races with all kinds of thoughts about people places and things. He lives an internal life. When he's told that his contract is going to expire sooner rather than later, Michael starts to unravel and his insides start spilling out, he starts to engage his thoughts and fantasies and behaving unpredictably. Soon you get the idea that he never really got over the deaths of his wife and child, he never allowed himself to grieve. His obsession with a red haired wild child student (Siren perhaps)leads him to this conclusion. He starts seeing his daughter in this siren and is forced to acknowledge that he didn't interact with the outside world for fear of having to acknowledge that he was lost, that his loved ones were dead, and that he would have to keep on living.

I don't know how convinced I was by the psyche angle of the story or the internal journey the character makes. Even though the book is written in 3rd person and we know alot about the protagonist, we spend alot of time in his thoughts and with his judgements, we still don't know alot about him. So when he starts to lose it I don't really care. And the use of this Siren and the oddball cast of oddball professors who are drunks and surviving on the fringes of academia seems too easy. The supporting characters seem stock and stereotypical.

But, some of the more mundane details in the book are dead on. Reeds needs to make meaning and to be drawn to this pond were people skate in circles, where he's reminded of the passing of time when the snow covers everything or the summer sun reveals all. Reed's enjoyment of his rowdy neighbors who party all night is a symbol of hope. He loves thier energy and their fearlessness.

The beginning of the book has a lot of strong writing, but in the middle and end it seems to lose some energy. At times when the story failed the language picked up the slack and vice versa. The writing overall is the best feature of this book. The story is can be haunting at times and hopeful. Will I ever read this book again- no, will I read more Denis Johnson- yes!

Slaughter House 5: This was a fun book to read for many reasons. First, I like the way Billy Pilgrim travels through time and space but you don't feel like you're reading a sci fi novel. 2nd, I like the way Vonnegut tackles the story of Dresden (which he always wondered how best to tell)by not really talking about the bombing, and 3rd I like how the novel is short but packs a hell of a punch.

In the story we get to visit critical moments in Billy Pilgrim's life, along with Billy, as moves from one moment to the next. Kind of like Scrooge in a Christmas Carol. We are witness to his being thrown in a pool to sink or swim by his father. We witness his capture and survival of Dresden. We are with Billy on Tralfamadore as he lives in a zoo. Billy has become unstuck in time and is destined to review and preview his life.

I don't think Billy is unstuck in time, I think he becomes unstuck from life. I think he was damaged by the trauma of being nearly killed by his father and being nearly killed in a war and then being nearly killed in a plane crash. I think the plain crash leaves him with brain damage where he must live through memories and books and pass judgement once again on what those events mean to him.

But the book isn't about time travel or space, or aliens at all, or about Billy Pilgrim. This book is about the horrors of war, the realities of willfull and intentional killing, and the lasting affects on the psyches of those who participate in it. There are no winners.

I didn't notice the writing really, it fit the story well and it didn't get in the way of itself; it was clean and concise. The format of the book is unusual. I had to flip back after reading the first chapter to make sure I wasn't reading an introduction or interview with Vonnegut. Then I realized that this was how he was going to tell his untellable story. I really enjoyed the way Vonnegut kept inserting himself in the story, always in the shadows saying things like "that was me, I said that". Kilgore Trout is also Vonnegut in the story. I suspect Trout, the writer of hack novels who wanted to say things but didn't know how so he used sci fi to do it, was how Vonnegut felt pre- Slaughter House 5.

Definately read this one if you have a chance. I'm sorry it took me so long to finally getting around to reading it, but I'm glad I've read it now with the War in Iraq fresh in my conciousness.

What can you say about a massacre? And so it goes.


Neil Kelly said...

read Slapstick and Gallapogos

Charmi said...

Slaughter House 5 is in a pile of books I have waiting to be read. I'm looking forward to it, but now the semester (yes, that word you don't know) has begun and it's probably going to have to wait for awhile.