Novel November


by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This is a complex book. First off, Vonnegut himself appears in the novel as both the author and as a character. It's the sort of line blurring he would take to extremes later with Breakfast of Champions, but here, because it is so off-handed, I was jolted from the page and had to stare off into the distance to stabilize myself. The opening chapter actually serves as an introduction to how the book came to be written, why it took Vonnegut so long to write about his experiences in War World II, and why he ultimately didn't believe his little anti-war book would have any impact on the world. Then somewhere in the middle of the story, which skips backwards and forwards through the life of its protagonist Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut mentions that one of the soldiers held captive with Billy is in fact him, Vonnegut, the author of the book. What? Wait. What? If the author is also a character, then either the author is fictional, or the story is true. The first line of the book says, “All this happened, more or less.” Did Billy Pilgrim really get kidnapped by aliens and put into a zoo and forced to mate with a porn star? That happened? Okay, the bombing of Dresden, a city with no strategic or military worth, did actually take place, and Vonnegut was indeed held there as a prisoner of war during the attack. You can read about it in history books. People survived and combed through the rubble of their homes and told their stories. Some of Vonnegut's characters may have been based on real people. Maybe a guy really was executed on the spot as a looter when he picked up a teapot he found in the ruins, and a guy who collected ears as trophies went free. We can buy that, but what about the damn aliens? Did they happen, too?

Therein lies the difficulty of this novel. You can take the Tralfamadorians at face value. They make contact with Billy and teach him how to view the universe as a series of events that are always occurring. They teach him that nothing really dies, it just exists in a state of death in one moment in time but exists as alive in other moments. All those moments can be visited in any order because time does not flow linearly as everyone thinks it does. The Tralfamadorian philosophy also means that no one can ever be blamed for their actions. Everything happens because it is predestined to happen. Of course, you can also make the case that the aliens are actually figments of Billy Pilgrim's imagination. He invents them and their view of the universe to explain the horrid events he witnesses in the war and to ease his grief over the senseless death. He makes up this alternate life for himself where he is whisked away and coupled with a beautiful woman. His notion of being put into a zoo with her only comes to him after he sees her in an adult magazine. It's a peaceful place he can retreat to whenever his real life becomes too difficult or demanding. Looking back at his life, Billy feels he was only a passenger and never the driver. But that's okay, the Tralfamadorians revealed that no one has free will anyway. There was never anything he could have done, so why feel guilty?

Billy bounces back and forth through memories of his life not because of alien enlightenment, but because he is never satisfied with the present. There's an amazing passage where Billy watches an old war movie on television. He comes slightly unstuck in time, and the film runs backwards. A fighter plane flies backwards past another and draws the bullets out of the damaged aircraft and out of the injured bodies of its passengers. The dead soldiers and brought magically to life, and their plane lands on the airbase where they are made citizens again. The bombs are unloaded from the plane, and women work around the clock on disassembly lines breaking the bombs down to their basic elements, and those elements are buried deep in the ground where they will never do anyone harm again. Governments declare peace, and everyone goes back to their families, and all life on earth works to produce two perfect people in a perfect garden where everything is provided for them. This of course is Billy's fantasy. I haven't seen that many war films, but I'm pretty sure none of them start in the Garden of Eden. Billy longs for a perfect life, and he finds it on Tralfamador with a sexy woman. No one dies, and he never has to make any decisions. Camera pulls away, fade to black.

But of course the novel doesn't end there. Vonnegut may be a humanist, but he's soaked in the muddy waters of pessimism. No, the book ends with the firebombing of Dresden and the execution of poor Edgar Derby. A bird says, “Poo-tee-weet?” because that's all there is to say about massacres.

You can take the aliens at face value or not. That's part of the beauty of this book, that it opens itself to any interpretation. We do feel for Billy. The horrors of war haunt him throughout his existence. He never recovers. And if the Tralfamadorians are real, and Billy is time traveling from one end of his life to the other, then he truly has seen his own death and knows that he ultimately means nothing in the scheme of the universe. That kind of knowledge can crush a person. Billy's fatalism is one of the means by which Vonnegut hopes to demonstrate the evils of war. Yes, it kills lives and destroys entire cities. But even the survivors are bombed-out and hollow, dead on the inside. War kills people and dreams.

So it goes.

But it doesn't have to. Vonnegut says in the first chapter that anti-war books are as effective as anti-glacier books. Meaning you can stop war as easily as you can stop a glacier. But some of the glaciers on this planet have melted. I don't accept that war will always exist. Maybe there's another book that can help...

old timey typewriter

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