by Kurt Vonnegut
Dell, 1991 (first published 1969)
Paperback, 215 pages
“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
So begins Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five. This novel is Vonnegut trying to find meaning in his experiences in WWI; he survived both the Battle of the Bulge and the 1945 bombing of Dresden, and he struggled for the rest of his life with the things he witnessed during the war. Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel that also isn’t an anti-war novel. As Vonnegut acknowledges in the opening chapter, one might as well write an anti-glacier book as an anti-war book — “there would always be wars … they were as easy to stop as glaciers,” he writes. And yet, it’s important for him to write about his experiences in the war, to try to make sense of them, and do whatever small part he can to make people understand the horrors of modern warfare.
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who, as the first line of the book lets on, comes unstuck in time: he randomly travels to different moments in his life. That’s not the only strange thing about him, though; in middle age, he is abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is kept in a zoo exhibit furnished with furniture stolen from Sears Roebuck. Included in these tenuously linked events is the bombing of Dresden, which Billy (and Vonnegut) survives by hiding with other POWs in an underground meat locker.
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five a few years ago, and this novel is unlike any I had previously read. It is a very fragmented little book, jumping around in time and space from Billy’s childhood in Illium, New York to a veteran’s hospital in Vermont to a POW camp in Germany to his exhibit on Tralfamadore to his marriage bed with an undesirable woman named Valencia Merble. It’s a strange, non-linear book different from anything that came before it, but it had to be different. Vonnegut couldn’t use a traditional form to talk about Dresden; his book couldn’t be one of John Wayne heroes and happy endings because that’s not how modern war really is. Instead, we have this little novel with very few characters, most of which are flat and almost cartoon-like. The form of the book, as well as its content, conveys that war is absurd and so are the people who fight it.
Slaughterhouse-Five is filled with absurd occurrences; Billy’s fellow American soldier Edgar Derby survives the firestorm that is the bombing of Dresden only to be killed by the Germans via firing squad for “plundering” a teapot while recovering bodies from the ruins of the fallen city. This actually happened to a man Vonnegut knew, although I believe this man was caught stealing a jar of pickles rather than a teapot. This realism is partly what makes the book so wonderful; Vonnegut uses the technique of metafiction, placing himself in the story at crucial moments of Billy’s war experience, saying, “that was me,” or “I was there.” These little reminders that these things really happened during the war, that he didn’t just make them up as interesting plot points, add so much truth to the story. The reader is reminded it’s not just fiction.
Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favorite books of all time, and I was beyond excited to read it for my Modern American Lit class last semester. This was my third or fourth time reading it, and I got so much more out of it through our class discussions. For example, I had always read it as a very nihilistic novel; war can’t be stopped, people are killed for no reason, and the Tralfamadorians have no concept of free will — they even know the universe will end in an explosion caused by one of their own species testing a new starship fuel, but they can do nothing to stop it because “the moment is structured that way.” However, reading the novel in a class setting helped me look at Slaughterhouse-Five in a more existential light; take, for example my favorite quote from the novel,
“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that 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.”
This quote really changed the way I look (or try to look) at death; rather than be sad a person is dead, I should focus on the happy memories of the person’s life. On another hopeful note, the book ends in the ruins of Dresden, but it is springtime, new life is surging forth, and a bird is chirping — signifiers that despite such huge-scale destruction, life goes on.
What do you think of Slaughterhouse-Five — is it nihilistic or existential? Is life meaningless, or can we find/create meaning through examining disparate, thematically linked events? What other messages did you get out of Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t talk about?