Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Black Humor, Satire, War
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five is sometimes called the spiritual successor to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It is a comparison that feels both instinctive and inappropriate; the latter revels in the comically absurd while the former in the existentially outlandish. In fact, at first glance, that both books examine the tragedy of war seems to be a thoroughly insufficient condition for such a comparison. What truly connects the two books is the soul-crushing emptiness that lies at their heart; Catch-22 spends countless pages mocking the nonsensical, pointless bureaucracy of war before ultimately soberly acknowledging its tragic consequences, but as Vonnegut himself states in his semi-autobiographical work – there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Slaughterhouse-Five focuses on the thoroughly unremarkable life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier, who later becomes a prisoner-of-war, and later still is one of the relatively few survivors of the firebombing of Dresden. It features elements as outlandish and strange as time-travel and aliens but these elements exist only for the purpose of establishing Pilgrim’s, and by extension Vonnegut’s, world-weary philosophy: everything that is, has been and will always be; our feeble attempts to change it mean nothing at all.
As a work of literature, Slaughterhouse-Five is remarkably minimalistic. The prose is simple but detached in its descriptions, often fixating on oddly specific details while most of the characters exist as literary cardboard cut-outs; the important details are in place but the characters’ purpose is thoroughly functional. They exist largely to create a more detailed background for the events of the story, as actors that keep the story going in a way that its protagonist is unable to. The character of Billy Pilgrim is not particularly interesting; rather, he is a character to which interesting things happen. Indeed, he is a character perpetually in shell-shock – unable to fully comprehend and accept the utter horror of the events taking place around him. Often during moments of particular strain, Billy will become unstuck’ in time – Vonnegut’s euphemism for time travel – and visit moments from his past and future. Billy’s paralysis and defeated acceptance of the world takes on a whole new meaning in the novel’s full context. Vonnegut, who was saw the firebombing of Dresden first-hand, perhaps knows better than most that feeling of confused detachment that accompanies such numbing experiences. That knowledge makes every instance that Billy becomes unstuck in time bitterly poignant; it is Billy’s mind overloading itself and seeking an escape from the pains of the moment. Billy knows how his life will play out, and is able to relive his better days while paradoxically still being doomed to suffer his horrific present.
The power of Slaughterhouse-Five is that it offers its readers no solace whatsoever. The race of aliens featured in the novel, the Tralfamadorians, see time, as Vonnegut himself possibly might, not as single fleeting instants, but as a connected line with each individual moment distinctly separate from the next. It is a philosophy that Billy Pilgrim learns to adopt, one that explains his state throughout the book: death and loss are not to be mourned because there exist moments in time when the dead and lost were not so. The ultimate tragedy of Billy Pilgrim, however, is that while he can enjoy every moment of his life, there will also forever be a part of him stuck watching the slaughter at Dresden. As Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
The next post should be next week, but as I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, I’m trying to devote as much time to it as I can. Of course, as always, I’d like to take a moment to appeal to everyone who enjoyed this post (or any of the 400 others) to support the blog in one of the following ways:
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