in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Writing

Rusty lock

Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five is a refreshing and enjoyable book, despite the often macabre subject matter. It reminds me strongly of both The Life of Pi, insofar as it refrains from interrogating its own fantasies, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, due to the style of language and presentation of characters.

The book is mostly about an American named Billy Pilgrim who participates in the Second World War (though he never fights), witnesses the firebombing of Dresden, and subsequently becomes an optometrist. He either goes mad or genuinely begins to travel through time, experiencing his own life in a random series of vignettes. The story’s narration is unobtrusive, though it sometimes has a self-referential feeling. The language is clear, simple, and poignant.

Free will is a major topic of concern in the book. The aliens who Billy Pilgrim thinks he encounters are able to see back and forth through time, and believe that all actions necessarily unfold in a certain way. This leads to a kind of fatalism where the inevitability of war and death is somewhat tempered by the ability to experience the better periods prior to those things at will. Arguably, Pilgrim created this idea in his madness after being broken by war (or brain damaged in a plane crash). Possibly, Vonnegut is trying to satirize the idea that wars and actions are inevitable; that is certainly suggested by the way in which the end of the universe is described, as the inevitable result of a rocket fuel testing experiment conducted by Pilgrim’s aliens. Pilgrim’s overall haplessness – as well as the thoroughly unheroic portrayal of other soldiers – certainly counter some of the more common war myths of valour and meaningful sacrifice. The refrain of the whole book, usually following a brief description of some incident of death or cruelty, is simply: “So it goes.”

Appropriately enough, given how the narrative jumps around in time, my first experiences of the book came in the form of reading random bits and pieces every once in a while. It’s not an approach that I generally adopt with books, but it worked uniquely well with this one. Reading it straight through definitely gave more of an overall picture, but the book couple be chopped up and re-ordered in any number of ways without a new reader finding it at all suspicious.

Overall, I really appreciated Vonnegut’s style and language. It shares many similarities with the early science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov: a crispness of language and compassionate voice. It makes me want to read more of his work.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 9, 2008 at 2:55 pm

According to Wikipedia, it seems that many of the experiences attributed to Pilgrim happened to Vonnegut himself:

Kurt Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work. As a Private with the 106th Infantry Division, Vonnegut was cut off from his battalion along with 5 other battalion scouts and wandered behind enemy lines for several days until captured by Wehrmacht troops on December 14, 1944. Imprisoned in Dresden, Vonnegut witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which destroyed most of the city. Vonnegut was one of a few American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in their cell in an underground meat locker of a Slaughterhouse that had been converted to a prison camp. The administration building had the postal address Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five) which the prisoners took to using as the name for the whole camp. “Utter destruction”, he recalled, “carnage unfathomable.” The Germans put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial. “But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.

Padraic April 10, 2008 at 9:02 am

I read this book in a single sitting (a bus from Ottawa to Pembroke), loved it, and have been slowly making my way through the rest of Vonnegut’s work ever since.

Elsa April 10, 2008 at 10:37 am

The colors in today’s photo are excellent.

Ashuri April 11, 2008 at 10:24 am

Did you kids miss highschool? Really– you are finding Kurt Vonnegut in your mid twenties, really? Have you read Catch 22? Catcher in the Rye?

I read Breakfast of Champions in a night in highschool, flipped it over and just started reading it again. “This is an asshole. It looks like this *.”
“This is a beaver, but they were talking about another kind of beaver that looks like this.” Also Welcome to the Monkey House. Hi ho.

While browsing through the discount bin at my favourite store, Boutique GT/Giant Tiger, I found a $3 DVD of a collection of short films based on Vonnegut’s work. It is so eighties! We’ll have to watch it when you’ve gotten through his stuff.

Milan April 11, 2008 at 10:28 am

I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, but no Vonnegut. Was it actually assigned to you, or just something you found on your own?

Oddly enough, I met my first long-term girlfriend for the first time when she found me in a small sea-cave on Hornby Island, reading J. D. Salinger’s book.

Kerrie April 13, 2008 at 12:10 am

I’m glad I didn’t get SF in high school, SF is way too good for high school. When I read it I couldn’t believe I had lived 21 years of my life without it. I have many favourite parts of the book but I also like the part where all of a sudden he switches completely out of fiction and says “that was the author of this book”.

Milan you would also enjoy Vonnegut’s autobiography.

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