I’ve always loved classics, but I gravitate more toward 19th century British lit, and authors like Vonnegut often have been relegated to the “I know I should read it and I’ll get to it eventually” pile. We all have one of those piles, correct? That’s why it’s helpful in book club when every now and then a member chooses one of these classics. Such was the situation with Slaughterhouse-Five. And I’m really glad to have finally picked this up. This is a very personal novel for Vonnegut. In 1943, Vonnegut enlisted in the army. He was sent to fight in the European campaign during WWII where he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent to Dresden and was, in fact, in a meat locker during the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in February 1945.
While Vonnegut was there during the fire bombing of Dresden, this story is considered fictitious. It’s loosely based on his experiences. There is a narrator who tells the story who is, in fact, supposed to be Vonnegut himself. When we first meet him he’s writing a book about the war that no one really thinks he should write. This book is called The Children’s Crusade. That’s a very profound title. It is a truth that many soldiers in all wars throughout the centuries are little more than children. However, I wasn’t really 100% sure that I could trust this narrator. My gut tells me yes, I can. I know Billy Pilgrim is a fictional persona, but he’s the embodiment of many different people that Vonnegut came into contact with during the war. We are introduced to him as an awkward and reluctant soldier. He relays his experiences both during the war and during certain time traveling experiences throughout his life. In some timelines he’s back in the future after the war doing his job as an optometrist. He’s married, has children, and leads a fairly standard life. Other times he’s been abducted by aliens from Tralfalmadore who keep him captive and study him to learn more about humankind. It’s clear to us that Billy believes all of these things to be true. Our task throughout the course of this novel is to discover what all of this means.
I’ll start by saying this book was a fabulous book club pick. There’s so much to analyze and to discuss, and I actually found myself growing to admire Vonnegut even more after discussing the book with the other members of Read Between the Wines. Also, I knew this book was on the banned books list, which basically gives me extra incentive to read it. In the Mentalfloss article, “15 Things You May Not Know About Slaughterhouse-Five,” they cite to the court case from Oakland county, Michigan, in 1972 when it was banned from public schools. The circuit court judge stated in his decision that the book was “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” Well, sign me up, because that’s my jam!! I also distinctly remember the 2011 (I repeat: 2011!!!!!!) fiasco in which a local professor successfully petitioned to get Slaughterhouse-Five removed from the Republic, Missouri, school system. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library gave away 150 copies of the novel to any student who wanted to read it. These ideas are harmful and ridiculous. And anyone who doesn’t really give this book a chance to open their eyes to something is really missing out. Then again, you only get that shitty by not being very well-read in the first place.
The tone is quite appropriate and authentic. Vonnegut isn’t one to use a lot of superfluous words, but the words he uses carry so much weight. For instance, “so it goes.” According to Mentalfloss (thank you so much for actually counting these so I didn’t have to), this simple three word phrase is used 106 times over the course of the novel. On the surface, this phrase is flippant and seemingly meaningless. It’s used in the same way someone would say, “I stubbed my toe. Shit happens.” But this phrase is anything but flippant. It pops up at the mention of death. At this time, soldiers like Vonnegut saw death on a nearly daily basis, sometimes by the hundreds or thousands. It became just another aspect of daily existence. It’s difficult for those of us living in idyllic little neighborhoods sitting in coffee shops writing book reviews to understand the sheer magnitude of that reality. It’s often through literature and art that we are shown a glimpse. When viewed in context, Vonnegut’s short “so it goes,” becomes infused with a desperate melancholy. It’s worth mentioning that this phrase in the novel has another meaning as it’s tied to the Tralfamadorians. These alien beings exist in a four-dimensional reality. They can experience and perceive any point in time, past, present and future, simply by willing it to be. They believe that death is irrelevant, as a being that dies in one point in time is still present and alive in another. So it goes. Billy adopts this phrase, as well as the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life, after his encounters with them.
If we were to break this down, it becomes fairly obvious that the creation of the Tralfamadorians within Pilgrim’s mind are a coping mechanism. They are a way to explain and process that which is unthinkable. His jumping through time is his way of placing himself within a happier existence, convincing himself that as long as he has been contented and will be again, the present agony doesn’t matter. And the deaths of his fellow soldiers as well as the strangers in Dresden who were all blinked from existence in a raging fireball don’t matter because a being can’t actually die in a four-dimensional reality in which all points in time exist concurrently with one another. It’s both comforting and simultaneously tragic. In a prior life of my own I may have gone down the research rabbit-hole and devoured page upon page of literary analysis from people much smarter than myself. As it is, I’m merely content to regurgitate my gut reactions. I’ve seen people classify this book as science fiction. I would completely disagree with that. Despite the presence of the Tralfamadorians, I don’t believe we are meant to believe they actually exist.
In my opinion, this novel is an excellent portrait of the living casualties of war. Those who return home haunted by the ghosts of the past. Really, this is a flawless portrait of PTSD. According to the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs, post traumatic stress disorder officially became a diagnosis in 1980, 11 years after Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five. While it may have never officially had a name prior to 1980, it has always plagued not just soldiers coming back from war but anyone who has experienced any form of trauma that leaves a lasting impact. In every case, humans seek out coping mechanisms, something to get lost in as a distraction from the traumas of the past, something comforting. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms often result in destructive behaviors that do nothing to better the lives of the afflicted. But this is a completely different subject for discussion.
I could say a lot more about this book, but I think I’ll leave it here. Suffice to say, it’s a worthwhile read. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly enjoyable, but it is one of those essential classics that everyone should read at least once. Though published in 1969, it remains relevant and will remain relevant for many years to come. Overall, I give it 4 stars.