October 23, 2013
For someone interested in the twentieth-century epic, Slaughterhouse Five is a no-brainer. How else would one call a story set in Ilium, talking about war, about death and the counterfactual?
But did I ever stop to think about the city on which Ilium was based?
I was put to shame when I started talking about the novel to a roomful of people, all of whom had seen the Victorian house on Van Buren Street where Kurt Vonnegut had lived when he was writing its early chapters.
He was a young novelist then, a new teacher. After his two-year stint he went to Germany on a Guggenheim to do his research for the novel — on the firebombing of Dresden.
John Irving, one of his students at Iowa, would go on to write The World According to Garp also in that house.
I love Iowa City: its lowkey downtown, almost free of chain stories, with the Prairie Lights Bookstore as the main hangout, and the entire city revolving around the labor-intensive art of writing. It’s not for nothing that its best known institution is called a workshop.
But Iowa City was also severely flooded in June 2008, with the University taking a major hit. All the artwork in its museum had to be moved to churches, high schools, community centers — perhaps the good thing to come out of the climate-change-related environmental disasters that are now our “new normal.”
If Vonnegut had been alive now, maybe Slaughterhouse Five would have had a sequel, also set in Ilium, featuring water rather than fire.