Every month I choose one classical book to read. I feel that as a writer and a reader it is crucial to see what it is about these books that have made them classics. Why do readers keep coming back to these books? Why is it important that these books are read? What did these books do that those before them didn't? WHY WHY WHY.
This month I selected Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This is my first little foray into the world of Vonnegut, which is ridiculous. I hear so much about him and the black humor he is known for. I love me some dark humor and even more than that, I love satire. I've been meaning to grab a Vonnegut for some time now and I figured why not start with what is probably his most well known book. And I wanted to use this book as a way to get to know Vonnegut himself seeing as this book is semi autobiographical.
The book is about Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist, a soldier, an abductee, and an exhibit in an alien zoo that has the ability to become unstuck in time, living his life in one moment and then suddenly finding himself in another moment in his life. Billy gains this ability after he is abducted by aliens and taken to the planet known as Tralfamadore where he is taught about what death really means. Also, he is placed in a zoo with another Earthling named Montana Wildhack where they have a child and put their foreign way of life on display.
"All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names."
The first chapter of the book is told by Vonnegut himself, discussing how this book was close to being unwritten and his own travels back to Dresden after the war had ended. It discusses how he got a three book deal, Slaughterhouse being the first book of the three. I was really surprised that he talked about how hard it was for him to write a book of this nature and subject and how he felt the book wasn't very good. Well Vonnegut, I feel like it did alright.
After that chapter the book doesn't have much of a linear storyline at all. The first of Billy Pilgrim's story begins with:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941 He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in
What you could call the main storyline follows Billy's journey through Germany first with a small group of three other soldiers and then as a prisoner of war and finally in the slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden before it is horrifically bombed. It took me a second to get accustomed to the jumps throughout the book through time and space and galaxy but as you keep reading the jumps feel natural and real.
The plot of the novel is clearly secondary to the writing and the experience the reader walks away with. War is fragmented and jumbled and so is the writing and storyline in the novel. What at first felt unreal with the time jumps soon began to feel incredibly real and plausible. I began to think that although I had never been abducted by aliens and given the ability to become unstuck in time, I had the ability after all. In every moment in our lives that are as vital and shocking as going through a war, I believe that all of us sort of jump through time. On the day I graduated High School I vividly remembered my first day of High School. When I see someone sick, I remember the times I was sick. When someone hears of the birth of a child, they jump back to the birth of their own.
It's our human way of coping. Our own lives are fractured and jumbled and the lives of those in a war zone are even more mixed up. This novel shows one man trying to cope with his life during and after the war, an experience that is clearly hard to get past. Seeing so much will change you. Being touched by death makes your life shift dramatically. This book was dramatic and real and true art.
The book feels incredibly intimate. It's a relatively small book and even as it remains Billy's story, I loved how in some moments Vonnegut pointed out that he also was there. When Billy is captured by the Germans and is watching a colonel from Cody, Wyoming utter his last words Vonnegut says plainly "I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare." This book read like an autobiography even if it was mostly Billy's story. I saw Vonnegut always close by, traveling through time in his own way.
This book is called one of the world's great antiwar books. I would agree but it was also so much more than that. It was a book that looked at war with true eyes. The men weren't treated as heros, war was anything but idolized. What is there to idolize about war anyway? It's a horrible affair. This book was loyal to that idea. But what I loved about this antiwar book in particular was the extraordinary level of hope it carried with it. It shows Billy and Vonnegut coping with life after and during such a horrible experience. It is continually pointed out that war is not fought by men, but boys. It's a Children's Crusade, as Vonnegut painfully terms it.
But as Billy is able to see himself in different times and with the wisdom of the Tralfamadorian race, he is able to see beyond the horror he is experiencing and remember the good times in life. I adored the Tralfamadorian vision of death. It's probably one of the most inspirational things I have read in a book in recent years.
"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. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them, It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I miself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes.'"
Near the end of the book Vonnegut in his own voice says,
"If what Billy Pilgrim learned form the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still- if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice."
I think that in this world of war and life, this is the perfect attitude to have. His optimism is real and he fought for it valiantly through the war he fought in real life and the war he fought in his own mind. The book left me wanting more of how he wrote with hope hidden among the shadows. I'm thrilled to continue reading more Vonnegut.
Overall, I loved the book. It left me changed, which is what I would want from a classic as treasured as this book. The best way I could describe it is with a quote from Life Magazine.
"Splendid art... a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears."
This is an important book, a delicious book, a must read.
Until next time, happy reading! I'd love to hear any recommendations you have for me, or your thoughts about anything I've read. Leave your comments below; I'd love to hear from you.