I had an epiphany mid-read. In the beginning, I didn't like Slaughterhouse-Five
very much. I read Breakfast of Champions and Galápagos a number of years ago and loved them. I went into this one expecting to bow down to Vonnegut once again. Then I found myself underwhelmed by his familiar absurdist schtick. About halfway through, I decided to do my best to read Slaughterhouse-Five
as if I hadn't read the other two works first. After all, Breakfast of Champions
weren't even gleams in Vonnegut's eye when he published Slaughterhouse-Five
. This shift in perspective made all the difference in the world.Slaughterhouse-Five
represents a terrific example of 20th century anti-war literature. There's a bit of a Catch-22 (published eight years earlier) feel to the novel, along with dread-inducing moments reminiscent of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (published in 1929). Vonnegut may not have been the first to tread the path of the 20th century anti-war novelist, but his unique mix of Tralfamadorian aliens, time travel, war, domestic life, socio-economic commentary, and unabashed, often hilarious vulgarity make Slaughterhouse-Five
an essential read.
Here's a sample of the horror that weaves throughout Vonnegut's satire. From the prison camp dining hall: "Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State. So it goes."
"So it goes" - the Tralfamadorian statement made in connection with any talk of death - serves as a refrain throughout the work. Vonnegut's repeated use of this simple phrase had an almost contemplative effect on me. Whether the death was tragic or comic, of many thousands of people or of individuals, from fire bombing or from driving a car with a damaged exhaust system, Vonnegut follows the event's telling with "So it goes." Death's inevitability stands in stark contrast to the means of demise. "So it goes" becomes an absurd slap in the face when stated in connection with the 130,000-plus people slaughtered in Dresden, more than were killed by either atomic bomb dropped on Japanese civilians. And Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the fire bombing. Is it any wonder that Slaughterhouse-Five
would take on a cynical, absurdist, anti-war tone? In a sense, Dresden served as Vonnegut's blackly humorous muse throughout his career as a writer.
Readers interested in better understanding Vonnegut's intellectual context as a writer might want to linger on Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s extended monograph analyzing the "disagreeable behavior" and sloppy appearance of American prisoners of war. It can be found just past the book's midpoint. Additionally, interesting philosophical and theological debates run throughout the text. What happens after we die? Is time linear? Are our actions and reactions pre-ordained? What role does God play in human affairs? These debates often happen in quick hits, forcing the reader to catch his or her breath for a moment before continuing through the narrative.
How much of Slaughterhouse-Five
is autobiographical? Fiction? Is Billy Pilgrim an avatar of Kurt Vonnegut? Did war and other tragedies in life make Vonnegut come unhinged in time, traveling back and forth through his memories and present existence? Can a witness to such devastation at Dresden be expected realistically to put the past behind them and sally forth unscathed? No. In a sense, we're all unhinged in time with our pasts erupting continuously into our presents. May the future be kinder to everyone.