Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut

As I mentioned on Monday, my posting schedule is a bit off this week.  Rather than the typical Tuesday/Thursday posts, I am spacing out three posts this week.  Hopefully you stopped by on Monday to read about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Today, I am once again touching on a book from the 100 Best Novels list.  Before you raise your hand and complain that I am not delivering the variety I promised for this week, take heart in the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five is about as far from Brodie as one can get.

Back in high school, I remember being given a list of books to choose from for a project. Slaughterhouse-Five had made the list and one of my classmates chose it.  I remember having only a vague impression of Kurt Vonnegut's work; it was out there.  Don't ask what I picked; I'm sure it was something far from controversial.

Had I read Slaughterhouse-Five as a high school sophomore, I undoubtedly would have had a much different opinion of it than I do now.  The book is a bit "out there."  It is a satirical look at WWII and alien abduction.  Yes, both of those things. The aliens are what take it a bit off the rails for me.

The protaganist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes a POW at the Battle of the Bulge.  At that point, he becomes unstuck in time and experiences his life in random, non-sequential bursts.  Vonnegut writes the book in this format as well.  Unlike other authors who use this fluidity of time in this way, Vonnegut keeps things very clear and understandable.

Over the course of his jumbled life, Pilgrim experiences the bombing of Dresden, a "normal" 1950s American life, and alien abduction by a species called the Tralfamadorians.  While on their planet, Pilgrim lives in a zoo exhibit with a movie star also abducted to be his mate.  He learns from the Tralfamadorians that time is a limiting dimension for humans.  The aliens do not view it in the same way we do.  Because of this, they view death not as an end, but as a state of unbeing.  This lesson revolutionizes the way Pilgrim experiences loss throughout his life.

The most significant way Pilgrim adopts the Tralfamadorian view of death is reflected in Vonnegut's writing.  After every reference to death, he uses the phrase "So it goes."   This sentences occurs more than 100 times in the book.  Death, I think, more than Pilgrim, is the main character.

In a line that stood out to me, Vonnegut writes, "the [veterans] who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought."  Those men who saw the most horror and death, those who experienced the most suffering and grief, they truly understand war and how terrible it is.  It is evident that Vonnegut counts himself among that lot.  He fought in WWII and was present for the bombing of Dresden, a slightly autobiographical note in the novel.  That bombing affected him deeply and shapes the book.

Slaughterhouse-Five often makes lists of banned books; Vonnegut includes strong language and several sex scenes.   This is probably where my high school impression of it stemmed from.  Reading it as an adult, however, those details pale in comparison to the greater messages of the story.

Had Vonnegut stuck to writing about the war and Pilgrim's life afterward, I think I would have experienced his writing with less confusion.  Vonnegut writes well.  It's just those pesky Tralfamadorians that get in there and mix history with science-fiction, making the whole thing a messy meeting of genres.  I recognize the importance of the aliens in the plot and in Pilgrim's evolving view of death.  Still, they just seemed like such a weird addition to me.  The fact that Pilgrim ends his life as a popular culture figure known for speaking out about his alien abduction is odd.  Maybe that's the point.

Pages: 275
Date Completed: September 1, 2013

What books have you read that mix genres?  Do you think satire is an effective way of getting a message across?

No comments:

Post a Comment