Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

First.  I almost always forget and have to go in and put it in later.  Here are the authors who thought Slaughterhouse Five deserved a ranking in their Top Ten.

1.  Kate Atkinson (which makes sense in regards to her latest novel, Life After Life)

2. Michael Connelly

3.  Douglas Coupland (I wonder if it’s pronounced like military coup-land, or Copeland?)

4.  Carl Hiassen

5.  George Saunders.

At first, I couldn’t tell if I liked Slaughterhouse Five.  It’s a strange little novel.  It’s meta-fiction but not.  Memoir fiction, but not.  Vonnegut was in World War 2, and was a POW in Dresden when the Dresden bombing happened.  The first chapter is all about his attempts to write a book about the experiences, and how that attempt dragged on for over twenty years.  He wrote the book on old wallpaper at one point.  He ends the first chapter this way;

“I look through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction.  The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read.  Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

So it goes.

Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known.  The world was better off without them. 

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been.  But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned into a pillar of salt.  So it goes.

People aren’t supposed to look back.  I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun. 

This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”

The tale is of a soldier Billy Pilgrim.  Billy is a soldier in World War 2, but not really a soldier.  He doesn’t have a gun.  He’s supposed to be a chaplain’s assistant over there, but before he can even do that, he’s unmoored from everyone around him.  He ends up a POW.  Vonnegut will insert himself in certain parts of the story, after an event, he’ll say that so and so said this and that was him.  He’s honest in the first chapter that a lot of the things he writes about he did in fact see.  For instance, a soldier being executed for taking a teapot from a bombed home. 

The most interesting thing about Billy though, is not his POW status, not his marriage to his wife, with the rich dad who pays for Billy to go through optometry school.  It’s not even his alien abduction.  It’s the fact that he becomes unstuck in time.  He will see his future while living his past, and live his future while seeing his past. 

Confusing a little, isn’t it?  I started to really like the book though as I got more into it.  I thought it was actually brilliant as to what (I imagine) an ex soldier goes through, the only difference, that they never have “Flash forwards” and only “flash backs”.  The way the narrator describes Billy’s falls forward and back in time, you get the sense that he might just be talking about what a normal vet goes through when he flashes back.

This was my first Vonnegut book.  He’s a brilliant writer, even if I know I will probably like another book of his better than Slaughterhouse Five.   The way he says things, is just amazing. 

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

He has a character, an American who defected to the German side and then wrote treatises about the American POW.  In a monograph, he writes (and it’s amazing to me how true this still is today, Vonnegut captured American society perfectly, in my opinion)

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.  To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be”.  It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor.  Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold.  No such tales are told by the American poor.  They mock themselves and glorify their betters.  The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question:  “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”  There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand-glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.  Americans like human beings everywhere, believe any things that are obviously untrue.  Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.  They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no m oney blame and blame and blame themselves.  This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class, since, say, Napoleonic times.   Many novelties have come from America.  The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor.  They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.  Once this is understood, the disagreeable behavior of American enlisted men in German prisons ceases to be a mystery.”


Also, after every death of anyone or anything, Vonnegut put “So it goes.”  I love the way it puts the casual feel to it, that death might have had to someone in World War 2 Europe.

Anyway, if you’re a fan of Chuck Pahlaniuk, and have not read Slaughterhouse Five, do so.  You’ll enjoy it 🙂  Oh.  And keep an eye out and give me your opinion on whether Billy Pilgrim was delusional and Vonnegut wanted us to see that, or whether we can’t accept Pilgrim as anything but delusional and Vonnegut wanted us to see that fact about ourselves.

One response to “Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Interesting post. I have barely started reading this book, (a quarter of the way through) and I like it very much. Thank you for writing this, it was fun to read.

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