Kurt Vonnegut (Adult Fiction)
By all measures, Billy Pilgrim would be considered a lucky fellow. He’s survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a POW camp, and a mountainside plane crash. He’s married, has children, and enjoys financial security as a successful optometrist. But, Billy also time jumps, which can prove inconvenient at times. He’s also been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet where he spends his time as a zoo exhibit. Did I mention that he’s in the sights of a hired assassin? It’s just another day in the life of Billy Pilgrim.
Slaughterhouse-Five is considered semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut shares many of the same military experiences as his main character. His novel is an anti-war dark comedy that delivers a bitter social commentary on the pitfalls of free will and the destructive nature of man. It also flirts with being a bit anti-American since the description of the American POWs—as compared to the other detainees—are far less flattering and the particular slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse-Five) chosen to hold the Americans was once used to house pigs. Although Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana, this novel and its message were undoubtedly influenced by the current events of the late 60s: Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Vonnegut lays it all out there and has no qualms letting us know that he was none too pleased about the current states of affairs at that time.
Vonnegut’s novel was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, although I personally found it difficult to enjoy. Given the time of its publication (1969), I understand the sentiments that Slaughterhouse-Five articulates, but I think less would have been more in this case. Combining the firebombing of Dresden with time travel and then adding alien abduction on top of it left the story feeling disjointed and haphazard. Just when the reader is feeling engrossed in a particular storyline, we are catapulted to a different time or planet. It’s like trying to stand on the deck of a ship during rough seas and not seeing any sign of calm waters on the horizon. Rather than being able to admire the overall view, you just want the voyage to be over so you can return to solid, stable ground.
Vonnegut also uses a lot of sensory imagery and phrasal repetition to reinforce the feeling of pain, the approach of danger, or the smell of death. He is particularly partial to the phrase “So it goes” and one individual even took the time to count each occurrence…which turned out to be 106. These three simple words always followed a mention of death and served as a convenient means of topic transition; however, by the fiftieth time you’ve seen it, it begins to lose its impact and has outlived its intended purpose. Solid ground never seemed so far out of reach.
With all of the blatant anti-war messaging found throughout the book, I thought nothing stated Vonnegut’s intended message more simply and effectively than a rather benign scene where Billy jumped back in time and was watching a late movie. It was running in reverse and showed American bombers during WWII. As Billy watched, planes once pockmarked with bullet holes were suddenly pristine, German fighter planes were busy sucking bombs back into their holds, smoke and fire were lifted from the ravaged city, crewmen and civilians were again healthy and whole, and the dangerous minerals used to make those deadly weapons of war were safely restored back to the ground and no longer a danger. Unfortunately, we know all too well that this didn’t happen. So it goes.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com