Slaughterhouse-Five is hands down, a genius combination of truth and fiction. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous satirical novel is about violence and war and the idea of free will. It’s an autobiographical and fictional mix built into a story about Billy Pilgrim’s time travels on Earth and his visit to the distant planet Tralfamadore. It was published in 1969, in the midst of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and became a best-seller because of its anti-war sentiment. It has been banned from some schools and studied in others and is considered Vonnegut’s most influential work. I think it is excellent in its message, its symbolism and its construction.
Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps back and forth through time and tries to make sense of a life that has been dramatically transformed by his experience as an American prisoner during World War Two. Billy wasn’t meant for war, but there he is. His miraculous survival after the Allied bombing and total destruction of Dresden, Germany is a turning point in his life, a moment he struggles, unconsciously, to understand and beat.
Billy copes in a way no one around him can understand, by retreating inward and traveling in time, past and future and being kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Tralfamadorians tell Billy that there is no real end in time. “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They tell him that moments in time are like “bugs trapped in amber.” When Billy notes that life on their planet is peaceful, unlike on Earth, they tell him they, too have experienced violent wars, but they have a way to deal with them. “There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments.”
I like everything about this book. Many of characters are symbols of certain types of thought and are precisely depicted through their actions and what they say. When Billy’s daughter, Barbara treats him like a child, I found myself believing in Tralfamadore. When Billy visits his mother at Pine Knoll nursing home, I felt his mother’s tears, as she pulls all her “energy from all over her ruined body, even her toes and fingertips” just to ask Billy, “How did I get so old?” I hated Roland Weary, I felt sad for Wild Bob and the hobo who says, “This ain’t bad. This ain’t nothing at all.” I saw the irony of Edgar Derby’s fate, a teacher of “Contemporary Problems in Western Civilization” and the image of Derby’s face bursting into tears after Billy feeds him a spoon of syrup.
This is one of those books that reads quickly and gives the first impression of a story casually told, but it’s not. Every word is carefully chosen, every character is deliberately included, and every jump in time is purposefully choreographed. And despite the graphic descriptions and language and the ugliness of war, this book has a beauty about it that’s hard to describe.
While this story is about Billy’s personal struggle, its bigger story and strongest message is about war. I think Vonnegut’s description of the Allied bombing of Dresden in reverse is very powerful:
“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes.”
Vonnegut continues this reverse description back to the beginning of man, where eventually, “Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.” All that’s complicated and violent, returning to something so simple.
It took me a long time to get to Slaughterhouse-Five. I don’t think these ideas will ever leave me.
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