“All of this happened, more or less.” Published in 1969 when the author was forty-six years old, Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death was the fifth novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut, the story of the soldier Billy Pilgrim who became unstuck in time and was held in an alien zoo on the planet Tralfamadore; such things being impossible, it was of course labelled science fiction: so it goes.
The pilgrim was of course Vonnegut himself, unstuck in time because the reality he was confronted with was one he could not live with and retain a rational mind, a prisoner of war who was held in Dresden in February 1945 when the city was firebombed by the combined strength of the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, a survivor and witness to the deaths of an estimated 25,000 others whose burnt remains he then helped clear from the streets and ruined buildings.
Slaughterhouse-Five the novel which brought Vonnegut fame, it captured the mood of a country angry at another foreign war and looking for answers beyond conventional thought and politics, inspiring a generation and still selling thousands of copies a year decades after its publication and inevitably incurring the ire of the establishment it criticised, banned from libraries and high schools where conservative voices frown upon open minds and seek to quell the dissent they breed.
Equally unstuck in time, filmmaker Robert B Weide was twenty-three when he first approached Vonnegut, then aged about sixty, not realising that he himself would be in his sixties by the time the resulting documentary was completed and released, the result of hours of specially shot footage and access to archive films, photographs and cuttings, with input from friends and family including Vonnegut’s three children and the four nephews he and his first wife Jane took in when both their parents died within days of each other.
Is it appropriate for a director to become part of the biographical documentary which they are shooting? Perhaps under normal circumstances the answer would be no, but like his work Kurt Vonnegut is not a conventional subject, and it is clear that Weide is a part of the story, a fan who became a friend for forty years, emblematic of the way readers embraced Vonnegut’s thoughts and the style in which they were presented and how he in turn responded to them with kindness and generosity as he became recognised, “a New York landmark.”
Was Kurt Vonnegut a perfect husband and father? Like his characters, he was flawed and shaped by circumstance beyond his control; so it goes, and his now-adult children recognise that and carry no grudges for his failures, his moods and his infidelities, Unstuck in Time a comprehensive portrait of a significant and influential writer and chronicler of the madness of the twentieth century which stands alongside other such works as Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin and Dreams with Sharp Teeth on Harlan Ellison.