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The Great Book Adventure: Slaughterhouse-Five

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I've been finished with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five for about two weeks and I'm still not sure what to make of it. That it involves war, I get. That there are aliens and weird happenings with time travel, I understand. What I don't think it's about at all, even though it claims to be, is the bombing of Dresden, Germany near the end of World War II.

Kurt Vonnegut really was in World War II and really was one of a handful of American POWs to survive the bombing of Dresden. With that in mind, it makes it easy to take his first chapter at face value. He talks about the build-up to writing his "famous Dresden book," about talking to an old war buddy who was with him at the time, and traveling to Germany on a Guggenheim-funded trip. Chapter one is a strange sort of introduction to the book which resulted from all this struggle, especially since it stars not Kurt Vonnegut, but the time-traveling Billy Pilgrim.

Most of this book centers around the namby-pamby Billy Pilgrim. He has become 'unstuck' in time and randomly travels back and forth in his own life. Sometimes he's a young private in the army during WWII, sometimes he's in his middle-aged optometry office, and sometimes he's naked in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. It was a totally unexpected device in the story, especially since the first chapter reads with something like the flavor of memoir. The structure gives the novel the ability to jump between several story lines, all quite distinct, and yet all in the life of the same character. In fact, this is apparently how Tralfamadorian novels are set up:

…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene … There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.

Vonnegut uses this structure of short scenes divided by three dots to move between moments in the story. Reading them front to back, as you would a normal novel, the seperations do not neccissarily denote a shift in Billy's time. In fact, very often the next section is simply a continuation of the last. Nevertheless, the three dots still exist and create a reading experience which is both disjointed and rhythmic. I wonder, if the novel were cut up into its component sections, shuffled randomly and reassembled, would it have any effect? Would it still work as well? I don't think it would. Despite the alien explanation, and the book's apparant adherence to that style, there is still a logical progression. Regardless of time, place or story, the novel always leads inexorably towards Dresden.

Throughout the book, no matter where Billy goes in his own life, the specter of Dresden flits in and out of everything. When he finally makes it to the doomed city, we miss the bombing entirely. We see the fairly mundane, yet beautiful, German city before and then the complete destruction after. The city is so reduced to rubble, so desolate, that both Billy and the narrator insist on calling it 'the moon.' As for the bombing itself, it never actually happens in the book. What I mean is that there is no description of the act itself, only the before and after. Its existence is simply accepted, even assumed. On the one hand it is slightly anti-climactic, but on the other there was really no other way to handle it. Slaughterhouse-Five doesn't pretend to be a history book, nor is it really concerned with the war in a broad sense. Instead, it concentrates on the absurd figure of Billy and his experience of the war. And since Billy (and by extension Vonnegut) was in a reinforced cellar during the bombing, the readers never get to see the process of destruction. So it goes.

That phrase, "So it goes", is the reader's other constant companion in this novel. It is repeated countless times, always immediately after a mention of death. Could be a soldier's death, could be a bird's, it never matters. If death was referenced in the most roundabout of ways, the sentence was followed with "So it goes." It became something of a chorus, a miniature rhythm, which the reader learns to expect. Like any good sound bite, it is compact and clearly associated with something, even if the meaning has been lost. It put me in mind of other euphemisms, things like "paid the ultimate price" or those magnetic car ribbons, things which gloss over all manner of sins without truly drawing attention to them. I think those three words are Vonnegut's way of satirizing people who oversimplify something as moving as war or death. The repetition of the phrase strips it of meaning and allows it to gradually and easily become ignored. The car ribbons, for example, have become so innocuous over the last few years, that I, for one, have stopped reading them. They're nothing more than a part of the background of life, and an easily removed part at that. Just because something is important doesn't mean it must be constantly remembered or mentioned. Such repetition can erode away the gravity of the issue, and reduce it to readily disregarded fluff, which is no fit state for a discussion of war or breast cancer or autism.

In the end, I can't really decide whether or not to call Slaughterhouse-Five a great book. There is certainly something of genius at work here, but I'm not sure that I quite understand it yet. It is definitely a precisely crafted piece of fiction, but what the true effect of that precision is, I simply don't know. This is the most modern book I have read so far, and I am reading it in an era still colored by echoes of World War II. To that end, I don't know if enough time has passed to test the novel's universality. Could it be that for a book to really enter into the annals of the GREAT, the society which produced it needs to pass away? Does history need to move on a bit more than it has so a new societal mind can put a book to the test? If that is the case, then Slaughterhouse-Five will surely be tried over and again in the years ahead. The results of those trials, though, I will leave to better minds than mine (at least until I've read the book again).

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About Chris Bancells

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    It has been several years since I read this, so I don’t have a lot of insights into it now, but I do recall loving it.

    Somewhere on this site is my review of the book, but it was written early in my writing career and I’m sure I’d be embarrassed by it now, so I won’t give a link.

    I did think the odd structure with the multiple time-lines served the book. I also found it to be a very moving little novel.

  • bliffle

    I read it a loooong time ago and didn’t like it. Too pretentious.