Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

This may not come as a shock to many of you but Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is one terrific novel. Witty, thought-provoking, wise, profoundly moving.

Funny thing is, when I first read the book in my college years, I wasn’t at all sold on its brilliance or importance. I liked it OK. But it struck me back then as a bit too slight, too glib, too “easy” to be considered a great book.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read Slaughterhouse again if not for my Books That Mattered blog.

[I must point out that I was definitely in the minority in my feelings about the novel. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is firmly ensconced on both the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century list (#18) as well as Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list.

When I quizzed Baby Boomers about the “books that mattered” to them, it was one of the most often-mentioned titles. So I guess I was a bit of an oddball in not loving the book back in the day.]

Slaughterhouse-Five Original

I suppose I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel at exactly the wrong time for me to really appreciate it: my senior year of college (1974) when I was starting to get a little pretentious and precious in my literary leanings. I was really into modernism and Eliot and Pound and Joyce.  I had started to view literature as a kind of elaborate game of Clue–the more obscure and arcane the allusions, the better. In comparison, Vonnegut’s novel just seemed too transparent and accessible.

So let’s just say that Slaughterhouse-Five and I were not a perfect match back then.

Having just read the book again for the first time in 40 years, I’m a little mortified that I was so cavalier about the novel. What a little twerp I must have been. That great Dylan line flashes in my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

It strikes me now that maybe I’ve learned a bit in the intervening years and one of the biggest lessons is that great literature doesn’t have to be difficult or knotty or complicated. It just needs to be.

Kurt Vonnegut

So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?

Pretty awesome.

On re-reading it, there are five aspects of the novel that I especially love:

ASPECT #1: Vonnegut’s Humanism

I find myself particularly impressed with humanity of the book. I’d somehow formed the impression over the years that Vonnegut was a cynical, deeply pessimistic writer.

[“Slaughterhouse-Five” is the only Vonnegut novel I’ve read so far. Note to self: read more Vonnegut.]

But reading Slaughterhouse now, my impression is quite the opposite. Vonnegut seems incredibly humane and generous and open-hearted.

Early in the novel the narrator recounts the biblical story of Lot. As we all remember, God destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing only Lot and his wife. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist taking a look back at the ruined cities (God had forbidden her to do so) and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Here’s his take on that story:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

Cynical? I think not.

Aspect #2: Vonnegut’s Playfulness

I also love Vonnegut’s ability to maintain a sense of humor even in the face of incredible darkness and tragedy. He is very funny, but never at the expense of his characters or his story. It is humor forged in the fires of hell.

Here, he recounts how he had been struggling for many years to write about the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden (an event that Vonnegut experienced first-hand as a young POW):

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say,” ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

Aspect #3: Vonnegut’s Narrative Experimentation

I don’t know about  you, but I am soooo tired of the whole “meta” thing: novelists whose novels are all about writing the novel you are reading; poems about how hard it is to write a poem; movie-makers whose movies are all about, yes, you guessed it . . . the movie they are making, etc. OK, we get the joke: everything we’re reading has been made up by the author. Can we please move on?

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the few meta-narratives that actually work for me (Ian McEwan’s Atonement is another). Because the book is not only about the absurdities and horrors of war, but also about the absurdity of trying to write a novel about war.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel, where the narrator clues us in on what he’s up to:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Unlike so many writers who employ meta-narratives in their works, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the technique works brilliantly. This is because in Vonnegut’s hands the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “reality”–between what is “made up” and what “really” happened–is not just a goof or a parlor trick.

There is real purpose here: Vonnegut is saying that the “truth” of Dresden is too big and awful and complicated to be communicated solely by fiction . . . or solely by non-fiction. In fact, trying to convey the truth of something like his wartime experiences overwhelms any traditional literary approach.

So when Vonnegut admits that he is both the author of the novel as well as a character (whom we occasionally glimpse on the sidelines of the action), it strikes the reader, not as trickery or game-playing. It feels like the work of someone who is desperately trying to come to grips with a reality that is so profound that none of the old rules apply.

Thus, the authorial intrusions, the jumping back and forth in time, the way the novel keeps circling back to the central story of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Germany: the reader feels there is no other possible way to tell this particular story. Which is as it should be.

slaughterhouse-five

Aspect#4: The Tralfamadorians

No matter what you may have heard, let me just say it here: Slaughterhouse-Five is not a work of science fiction.

That may be part of the reason that I was a little unappreciative of the novel back in the day: not having read any Vonnegut before, I was expecting a little more of a mainstream SF novel.

Unlike true science fiction, I don’t think for a second we are supposed to take the Tralfamadorians (the aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, and put him in a zoo on their planet) seriously or as realistic depictions of an alien life form. They are clearly a literary device meant to act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and pointing out the absurdity of being human:

. . . they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. . . . The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three.

Looking at it now, I’d put the novel more in the “imaginative satire” camp than SF (more like Swift’s Gulliver Travels than, say, Dune or Childhood’s End).

Nevertheless, the Tralfamadorians are a marvelous invention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their conception of time. Here is Billy Pilgrim in a letter trying to describe how Tralfamadorians view things:

“. . . when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

I suppose the real question is: how seriously are we supposed to take the Tralfamadorians and their world-view? On the one hand, their approach is appealingly Zen-like and serene: accepting whatever happens because it has always happened and always will happen.

And yet, being human, can we ever learn to just accept things (such as Dresden)? Can we ever really hope to adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”

 Aspect #5: Vonnegut’s Depiction of War

Has there ever been a scene that more economically and chillingly depicts the tragedy of war than the moment in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy and his fellow POWs emerge from their bomb shelter after one of the most savage and destructive acts in all of human history: the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden.

There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

135,000 people–mostly civilians, thousands upon thousands of women and children–were incinerated in one of the most pointless acts of warfare in human history. The civilian death toll was nearly that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

No one contests the fact that Dresden had virtually no value as a military target. It was sheer, wanton destruction. Twenty-three-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was there to witness it all. And was destined to one day come back to it in his imagination and relive it all again for our benefit.

so it goes

Slaughterhouse-Five is one writer’s noble attempt to make sense of the senseless.

It is a book that should be read by anyone who is seduced by the “glory” of war, or the idea of a “good war,” or the notion that civilian deaths can be written off as “collateral damage,” or any of the other fictions we tell ourselves to make war seem less barbaric than it always is.

It was a must-read back in 1969 when it was first published and remains even more of a must-read today.

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22 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

22 responses to “Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

  1. Thanks for a very touching post. I really enjoy seeing how your reactions to the books you discuss change over the years. I’m surprised that you weren’t crazy about Slaughterhouse-Five initially. I’ve always loved that book. Glad you’ve finally seen the light!

    • It’s interesting to see how our reactions to books can change over the years. So much has to do with what’s going on with us when we read them: with what’s happening in our lives, with who we are at the time, on all kinds of factors internal and external. It’s been a rewarding and fun exercise. Highly recommended.

      Thanks for reading along and commenting.

      • I have always loved Vonnegut’s books. Slaughterhouse Five was mesmerizing, but cat’s cradle blew me away. Global warming, pollution, total disregard for our environment (I think we are having a mini global warming now). This disregard will kill life on earth. Mars is not the answer., Thank god I’ll be long gone!!!

        Richard Lemerise

      • Was wondering which was the next Vonnegut book I should read (believe it or not, I’ve only read Slaughterhouse). Cat’s Cradle do you think? Thanks so much for reading along and commenting, means a lot to me.

  2. Great post! I remember the sci-fi stuff working much better in the novel than it did in the movie adaptation, where it came across as awfully cheesy. Can you recommend any other books that have sci-fi elements, but wouldn’t necessarily be classified as hard SF?

    • I agree about the movie version of SH5. It was OK, but really didn’t quite do it for me. Although the film does a great job of capturing the beauty of Dresden pre-bombing and its absolute utter destruction when the POWs emerge from the bomb shelter afterwards.

      Re/ books that verge on being SF without quite crossing over the line into pure SF? I guess I’d put a lot of dystopian fiction in that category: 1984, Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

      There’s a grey area (a wonderful grey area that I love) where science fiction, fantasy, satire, horror, and just pure imaginative writing all just sort of blend together. I guess at some point it doesn’t matter whether we label something as SF or satire or fantasy or horror: if it’s good writing, it’s good writing no matter what we call it. And if its bad writing, who cares what we label it?

  3. marie

    This post was truly inspiring and again so insightful Erich. I too had ignored the much-vaunted Vonnegut and this novel. I didn’t even know it was about Dresden and had aliens that’s how tuned out I was when the novel was the buzz of the moment in 1969.

    I too loved Lot’s wife for being the witness to horror. I cheer her courage to disobey the Almighty because in human terms someone must carry the memory for it to survive.

    I did not know about the application of “meta” to what I call self-referential-ness. Of course it is older than the Millennial reflex. I always think of meta-analysis of a body of evidence, a more objective assessment rather than a narrowly focused subjective take.

    I related too to your comment about the Moderns, e.g., Pound. Studying art history in the 70’s I felt some of those modern experiments, in painting in particular, were specious covers for limited talent or diligence.

    You’ve made me want to read SH5. Thanks Erich.

  4. Thanks for some wonderfully insightful and interesting comments. I was hoping when I started this blog that it would become something of a two-way street with readers so we could start to have conversations about these great books.

    I was a little concerned about using the word “meta” to describe the current self-referential trend in modern writing and film-making and art. When I was in grad school it was pretty well understood that “meta” meant the author was being self-referential and pointing to his/her role as the creator of the thing you were reading. Kind of saying “look at you, dear reader, treating these people in my novel as if they were real . . . when all along I’ve actually been making all this up. Ha Ha.”

    I feel there is this often a snide undercurrent about writers who traffic in meta-narratives. (A little too “look at me” for my taste.) Which is why meta-fiction is so seldom satisfying for me as a reader, except occasionally when it happens to really work: as in SH5 and Atonement and Italo Calvino’s works. There are probably a few other successful examples that I can’t think of at the moment.

    Thanks as always for your thoughts.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I never read Vonnegut and may have to now. I must have some history there myself being German. I read another blogger’s post on this book too, so it is time I give it a read.

  6. You’re the best at pulling out the most poignant quotes from books. Thanks as always!

    • It’s actually fun but a little bit of a challenge to find the right quotes to include in each discussion. I try to choose quotes that will give a reader the flavor of what reading the book is like. But need to keep the volume of quotes down to a manageable number. Thanks so much for following along. Your comments are always appreciated.

  7. This is such a well-written and touching reminder of a great book that I haven’t read in a long time. Thanks for reminding me of how great Slaughterhouse-Five is.

  8. Thank you for this comprehensive review. I, like you, was not overly impressed by this novel at first. My favorite of Vonnegut’s work is “Cat’s Cradle,” a satiric slashing of every medium in life that influences us…religion, marriage, politics, science, etc. I think you’ll enjoy it, As he says in the book,”There’s no damn cat and there’s no damn cradle.” An interesting footnote to “Slaughterhouse” occurred when a dear friend of mine was running the summer playhouse in Connecticut one year and had Vonnegut as a guest speaker, After the talk, my friend said to Vonnegut,”What I thought was extremely interesting was that a clock fell on Billy Pilgrim, pinning him down with time.” Vonnegut looked at him in amazement and said “I never thought of that!” Sometimes the subconscious moves in mysterious ways.

  9. Just put on my to read list! Thanks!

    • My work here is done. (The hidden agenda of my blog is to get folks to take a look at some worthy books they may have read a long time ago and forgotten, or they never got around to reading in the first place.) Thanks for following along and commenting.

  10. So, I’m finally catching up with some old posts, Erich, and i had looked forward to this one. Unlike you, I was in fact a diehard Vonnegut fan back in college. Read everything he wrote up through “Breakfast of Champions,” and then I guess I moved on to other writers. But I returned to “Slaughterhouse-Five” a few years ago, worried that it wouldn’t hold up. I was wrong. It reminded me again why I’d given so much time to Vonnegut so many years ago. I think your first point might be the most important: Vonnegut’s humanity. He cares about people, no doubt, though they astonish him often, not always pleasantly. He’s like Heller in that way (I just got round to reading your piece on “Catch-22”). Still, he remains hopeful, in a kind of goofy, labrador-like way sometimes, no matter how insane things get. And as for the first sentence of the novel, I remember instead the first sentence of the STORY: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” That has to be one of the greatest first lines ever. It spoke to a generation. It perfectly captured the world then and, damn, if it doesn’t capture it now.

    Great job, Erich, as always.

    Jack

    • Thanks for your always perceptive comments, Jack. I suspect that our tastes in books have a ton of overlap. I’ve actually finally gotten around to reading some more Vonnegut and can’t believe that it’s taken me so long to get around to his other books — like Cat’s Cradle, which I loved.

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