Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Slaughterhouse-Five sets out to protest war without glorifying it, and it succeeds in accomplishing that task. Vonnegut can find no answer for mankind's decisions to commit gross violence against its own kind, except in the meaningless song of a bird: "Poo-tee-weet?" He purposely does not develop his characters with any depth, a decision that works because it signifies the toll that war takes on the individual. The novel's hero, Billy Pilgrim, wanders through life with little concern or feeling for anything. It doesn't seem to bother him that he slips through time, to the past, the present, and the future. Then again, I wonder if it's possible to read the time travel element on a less literal level. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but wonder whether the alien species called the Tralfamadorians were a part of Billy's damaged postwar mind, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

At some point of his life, Billy Pilgrim became "unstuck" from time. This means he can travel to any moment in his life at any time. Not that he does this willingly. He seems to travel from one moment to another at random, and he has no choice but to revisit that part of his life. In fact, all moments of his life exist at all times, which means he is both dead and not dead at all times. For narrative purposes, these moments aren't just puked up into one blob on a page, but there is a semi-logic to the order that we see them. There is also a semi-chronological order to them. For the most part, we learn about Billy's service in World War II chronologically. The rest of his life progresses in a less chronological manner, and we also know things that are going to happen, such as the death of Edgar Derby, long before they do happen. But that's the Tralfamadorian way.

What does happen to Billy Pilgrim is much less important than how Vonnegut presents what happens to him. Billy is a pathetic person who seems to react to the events in his life with a resigned hopelessness. Billy doesn't protest the unfairness of his life, and in some ways even seems blissfully unaware of how unfair his life is, as when he walks around as a prisoner of war in ridiculous clothing for his own warmth, to the amusement of spectators. I've heard critiques of the novel as "quietist," suggesting that Vonnegut is trying to say people should resign themselves quietly to their fates as Billy does. However, I believe Vonnegut is commenting on reality rather than offering suggestions to help cope with life's atrocities. This is especially relevant today, when you read that veterans have dramatically higher suicide rates than the rest of the population. They've simply lost the will to go on.

Vonnegut makes lots of use of irony, satire, and humor, and in surprising ways. The famous line from the novel, one he uses in relation to death, "So it goes," seems to comment on society's desensitized attitudes towards death. The phrase calmly and easily tosses the impact of death aside, yet sometimes the reader can't help but feel its effects immensely, particularly in the way the phrase actually draws more attention to death. Vonnegut has a gift for drawing the reader's attention to the sadness of human fate by making us laugh. One of the funniest scenes of the book takes place at a POW camp, where English POWs welcome the exhausted Americans by putting on a play of Cinderella. At one point Billy laughs and can't stop laughing until his laughter turns into shrieks and he has to be carried into the hospital. I don't think I laughed harder in the novel than at this point, but I felt guilty for laughing. Billy's uncontrollable laughter was a product of the horrible things he experienced in the war up to that point.

I also wonder whether we're not supposed to find irony in the idea that Billy has come "unstuck" from time. In fact, I believe Billy has become stuck in time, and in multiple senses. He seems to wander through his adult life, in the 1960s, trapped in two other places: Dresden and Tralfamadore. While other things happen to him or around him his mind travels back to his time in the POW camp, and when he returns, sometimes details return with him. The feet of dead prisoners are referred to as being "blue and ivory," and later when Billy wakes up next to his wife and gets up to use the bathroom, his feet are blue and ivory. At other times he seems so caught up in his thoughts about Tralfamadore that he has no concept for his surroundings, as when his adult daughter scolds him for sitting in a chilly room writing down his ideas about the aliens. His time on Tralfamadore seems to be pure fantasy, as he breeds with a beautiful movie star, Montana Wildhack, for the research purposes of the Tralfamadorians. Is Tralfamadore real, or a product of his damaged psyche?

There seem to be lots of hints scattered about that Tralfamadore is a product of Billy's imagination. After his first encounter with Montana Wildhack, for example, he wakes up in his home in Ilium to realize he's just had a wet dream about her. That his perhaps imaginary experience on Tralfamadore serves as a coping mechanism for his experiences in the war can be found in parallel descriptions about him undressing in Dresden and on the flying saucer. Kilgore Trout, Billy's favorite author, is probably the biggest piece of evidence to show that Billy has only imagined his encounter with the Tralfamadorians. For one, many of the ideas we learn from Trout's books are very similar to details we learn about the Tralfamadorians, such as the fact they can perceive sexes in the fourth dimension. But Trout is also a big clue about the reliability of the narrator.

We can assume the narrator is the author himself, since Vonnegut makes many mentions of himself in the first person. Some of what he says is factual. Dresden was bombed, and Vonnegut was there when it was bombed. However, Kilgore Trout is a fictional person, though he's not treated as such. This mixture of fact and fiction, both told as though they were one and the same, clues the reader in that we can't necessarily take the narrator at his word. Thus, though he describes Tralfamadore as though it were real, that doesn't mean it is. It could very easily be a product of Billy's post-traumatic stress disorder, a coping mechanism. The idea that Billy can see all times of his life is never fully established either. We don't really know when the present time is, so it's difficult to gauge whether we truly do see into Billy's future. There is a scene where Billy describes how he dies, but this scene is tricky. It's not written as something that has or is happening, as the rest of the scenes are, and the narrator states it not as fact, but as something Billy has said. The question is, can we take Billy at his word? I don't think so.

Kurt Vonnegut has sympathy for the small guy, the sort of people who tend to be the victims of such things as war. That's why his story has no heroes in it. The only heroic thing anybody does is when Edgar Derby stands up and delivers a short diatribe against Nazism to a senior Nazi official, but the speech really doesn't mean much in the long run. Vonnegut's sympathy is strongest in his, or Trout's, criticism of the story of Jesus Christ. The problem is that when Christ was crucified, he was a somebody, the son of God, and so it was a huge mistake for the Romans to crucify a man who had such powerful connections. Vonnegut, or Trout, believes the story would be improved if Christ was crucified as a nobody and then God decided to name him man's savior. As it stands, it's okay to do whatever you like with somebody as long as they don't have connections. Somebody like Billy Pilgrim or Edgar Derby. For a powerful man like Jesus, revenge will be had, but for the rest of us, only the birds will speak up: "Poo-tee-weet?"


  1. Great review about a complicated, fascinating novel. Slaughterhouse-Five truly deserves to be a classic for its timeless, thought-provoking themes. I re-read it last weekend after many years and found that I enjoyed it even more as an adult than I did as a teenager.

    1. This was my second read-through as well, and I got much more out of it the second time around. I listened to the audio book, which was interesting because at the end Kurt Vonnegut talks about his experience in the war and with the book.

      Thanks for visiting!

    2. I had no idea the audio book featured Kurt Vonnegut talking about his experience. I just might check that out! Thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Wow! Great review.
    I have never actually heard of this book, but I do enjoy reading something that really makes you think!