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.]
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.
So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?
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.
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.'”
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.
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.