Well, honestly. Sometimes I think Catch 22 has a lot to answer for.
The lunacy of war is a fertile area for fiction, but a dangerous one. When it’s used as the rationale for a book that is – frankly – bonkers, you do start to wonder if there is in fact something intelligent to say about war rather than simply communicating how it blasts everyone’s bodies and minds into the ether. That, after all, is the joy of Catch 22 – in melding the comic madness with the cold human truth.
Kurt Vonnegut’s famous Slaughterhouse-Five tells, sort of, of the bombing of Dresden (at which Vonnegut was present) and the life of a particular soldier who was there. And yet the bombing itself is not directly talked about – it is the life of soldier Billy Pilgrim, both immediately before and after the bombing and in the decades before and after it. Oh, and did I mention? Billy Pilgrim travels freely through time and is abducted by aliens who live outside of time. Yes.
The problem is that any rational critique of this book can be answered with “Oh, but he’s talking about war, which is madness, so that doesn’t apply.” Which is frustrating in the extreme. Vonnegut starts the book with a section about writing the rest of the book. The first sentence – “All this happened, more or less” – is all very modern and meta-fictional, and I thought quite promising. He goes on to apologise that the novel is “so short and jumbled and jangled” as “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” True, you think, but you lack a sense of heart as you progress – as if Vonnegut has had this intellectual idea and pursues it rather than feeling his way through the emotions connected to such a massacre.
Critics have praised Vonnegut for avoiding mawkishness entirely, and he does, but it’s definitely at the cost of the book’s warmth and humanity. And that’s where you circle back round to the problem – of course there’s no humanity, it’s intentional, it’s the human condition deadened by war and traumatised. In its place there is weirdness. Yime travelling weirdness and aliens.
Perhaps Catch 22 has just ruined me for all war books, but I believe that you need to be engaged in a book in order for it to sock you in the jaw and deliver you a killer message (something American Pastoral recognises equally.) You can’t have your heart stopped if it never started beating in the first place.