Friday, January 20, 2012

Team Review 2: #18, Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indiana in 1922, the son of German immigrants. He was educated at Cornell before joining the Army in World War II. He fought, and was captured, in the Battle of the Bulge, and was a German POW near Dresden at the time of the famous firebombing. After being liberated, he returned to the United States, studying and working briefly in Chicago before taking up a career as a full-time writer. He was the author of 14 novels, of which Slaughterhouse Five is the 6th, and dozens of short stories and essays. He died in 2007.

M. Says
Slaughterhouse Five takes a very loose version of Vonnegut’s own biographical war account and massages it into a fatalistic vision of war and, more broadly, life. I’ll not attempt to provide much in the way of plot summary, as I usually do – there’s very little plot to speak of. Simple Billy Pilgrim fights in World War II, grows old, and is killed. Along the way, he comes unstuck in time and gets kidnapped by aliens.
If this baffles you, it’s because you don’t know Vonnegut. His style is this odd sort of extremely earnest, matter-of-fact description of the fantastic, and an extremely shruggish description of the banality and fatality of ‘normal’ life. (So it goes.) There’s an element of rambling conversationalist to him, too.
A while back, I read some New York Times columnist who made a remark about the similarity in tone between the Catcher in the Ryes Holden Caulfield and the narrator of Slaughterhouse 5. I think this overstates things – Vonnegut is self-conscious while he rambles in a way that Holden simply is not. Vonnegut admits to us that he is being willfully absurd – even when he is in earnest, he winks at us; what infuriates me about Holden (among other things) is the way that he seems to be passing off his absurdities as honesty, reality. But there are parallels between the two, and they aren’t all trivial.
To be honest, I find some of the stock fantastical “Vonnegutisms” to be a little bit overdrawn as his fiction goes on. By the end of a reading of the collected works, the planet Tralfamadore has lost its interest by having been referred to far too much, in ways that seem merely ridiculous. The danger for soft-sci-fi writers like Vonnegut is that they can rely too much on their gimmicks – and when they’re invoked for a laugh (whether it be a deep throaty one or an amused chuckle), we’re drifting off of the path of greatness.
But in Slaughterhouse Five, they have a purpose. And that’s why Slaughterhouse Five is on this list, and should be.

Over the course of a remarkably tight little whiz-bang of a novel, our narrator (a novelist-within-a-novel, a Vonnegut stand-in) defiantly declines to give us a story that develops linearly. Instead, the entire thing is painted in vignettes, most of which do not last even two full pages. Because of this, the story does not hang together very well - indeed, it's not supposed to.
Because of Billy Pilgrim’s condition – unstuck in time, remember – these vignettes do not even come in a strictly chronological order. If the book were longer, or less straightforwardly readable, this would be a structural disaster, and it would collapse into gibberish. As it is, I think that the author's rambling tone maintains enough forward energy in the absence of a linear plot to force the reader through to the conclusion.

Bring in the Tralfamadorians! These aliens, existing permanently in four dimensions, see all objects at all times at once. From their perspective, since the past and future of an object are akin to it’s front and back, the notion of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ is meaningless. Objects, and people, merely begin at a particular point, continue for a while, experiencing a sequence of moments, and then cease to be. To me, Vonnegut's deployment of the Traflamadorians here is absolutely brilliant. Unlike their somewhat gimmicky and offhand occurrences in other books, here they fundamentally underscore Vonnegut's fatalistic outlook in a way that no other, "natural" method could.

Because of course, this worldview means that Free Will is meaningless, too. If all people and objects simply exist over the length of some dimension ‘time’, and those dimensions are pre-arranges, then nothing that any person does can alter the course of the future. Indeed, the very notion of a person having ‘will’, in the sense of something that they can control, becomes meaningless – a person’s pattern of thoughts are no less part of the pre-ordained pattern than their actions and their status.

(Someone – no, it was not K!- once complained to me that the Traflamdorians didn’t have a realistic psychology for a species experiencing time the way that they are. That person was missing the point.)

To me, the very height of the whole darn book comes pretty early on:
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy's wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference." Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
Whether this fatalistic world-view came to Vonnegut through the horrors of the firebombing and World War II or whether it was something innate in his dour disposition, we cannot say – whether we agree with Vonnegut or not about the future, the past is fixed. Vonnegut did go to the war, did experience those things. The net result, as multiple critics have it, is that he creates a tragedy over which we cannot weep – for how could it have gone any other way? – and a comedy at which we cannot laugh – because as ridiculous as it is, it’s so damned depressing.

One final note: my colleague has railed at me – in person, over the phone, and so on – over “So it goes”. To her mind, I the droning repetition of the phrase every time a death of any kind occurs makes the phrase lose its impact. I think she’s entirely right here. By the end, it becomes a drone, and loses all its force. There is nothing remotely dramatic, or powerful, about the phrase as deployed. To my mind, that’s exactly the effect that Vonnegut is working towards.
Now, granted, it’s a fatalistic effect. But to a Tralfamadorian viewer, recall, death is no more a significant element of a person’s existence than is, say, his finger-tip. It’s just one end-point, he’s got another one at the beginning, and a lot of stuff in-between. The whole point is to rob “So it goes”, and by association, death, of some of its weight. In the volume with which it happens in this book, and in war, it’s no longer a tragedy. It’s just a thing that happens.

K.'s Thoughts:
Hello there, and welcome to our second Team Review, this time of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. You've had M.'s thoughts, and now it's my turn to share my thoughts, reactions, and recommendations.

Here goes: I wasn't as crazy about Slaughterhouse-Five as I thought I was going to be. But before you protest, hear me out. I have a very good reason for not thinking too much of this book- something I’m sure has happened to all of you, whether in regards to a novel, a movie, a restaurant, or just about anything else you could experience: it was built up for me enormously. Much more so, I am confident in saying, than any other book on this list. Coworkers, friends, strangers who saw it sticking out of my bag, everyone had to let me know that Vonnegut was a peerlessly brilliant writer, that S-5 (as it shall thence be known) was THE best book, THE most life-changing read, THE most astounding piece of writing they had ever experienced. So, when I read this book and my mind was not completely and totally blown, I was inevitably (an understandably) disappointed. That initial reaction out of the way, I have plenty of thoughts, both positive and negative, on S-5. Let’s start with the positives.

There is one sparklingly impressive quality S-5 has that can not be denied: it is original. In a world of ancient stories reworked and rehashed, this really is a unique little snowflake (I mean “little” literally here- it’s only 275 pages). The historical elements of World War II and the science-fiction elements were blended skillfully and poignantly. The idea of the protagonist Billy Pilgrim “coming unstuck in time”, as it is described, is so simple but so totally challenging to our concept of free will that I think, if for no other reason than this, Slaughterhouse-Five deserves its place on the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels list.

S-5 is, essentially, a war novel, or a novel about the nature of war. The narrator promises early on to his friend’s skeptical wife that this is not a glamorized guts-and-glory war novel full of triumph and American Victory. Vonnegut’s war is absurd. It is tragic and pathetic and inevitable and ridiculous and totally devoid of dignity but more than anything else, it is absurd. For whatever other issues I have with this book I am infinitely grateful to Mr. Vonnegut for saying what needed to be said, in regards to war, and the stylish and totally falsified in which war is so often depicted in fiction and film.

As far as the actual writing goes, S-5 is written in a style that I can only describe as disjointed and aggressive. I would count that as a negative in almost any other situation, but here it was done with great intention. Since this tone was clearly what Vonnegut was going for and he did achieve it, I feel that I must count it as a positive, my own tastes in this matter aside. The short, awkwardly-broken anecdotes that the novel is comprised of suits the plot very well. As a great lover of cohesion I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to this, but overall it was effective. And, as the rave reviewers I’ve been talking to prove, this clearly isn’t an issue for too many people.
Another stylistic detail that I thought was used very effectively overall was Vonnegut’s use of repetition. “Blue and ivory” is woven subtly throughout the text, as is the “Poo-tee-weet?” of the bird call. These two themes do serve to provide a sense of cohesion in the book, but, now that we’re speaking of repetition, I feel the need to come to my negatives.

Undeniably, the most iconic phrase to come out of Vonnegut's writing is “So it goes”, which, if the wonderful blog The Word Made Flesh ( is any indicator, people are tattooing on themselves left and right. In case you were wondering, the phrase “So it goes” occurs approximately once every two and a half pages in S-5. Here, my lovely reader, is where I’m going to make myself unpopular: I think the message of the novel would have been tremendously more powerful if Vonnegut had pared those 106 instances down to maybe a half-dozen. To me, about four chapters into the book the excessive use of the phrase stopped working for the message and started working against it. I definitely would not rid the story of it altogether; there was one passage that I found particularly moving and inspired, where the “So it goes” that appears really is justified and does enhance the moment:
Derby described the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more. Shells were bursting in the treetops with a terrific bang, he said, showering down knives and needles and razorblades. Little lumps of lead in copper jackets were crisscrossing the woods under the shellbursts, zipping along much faster than sound. A lot of people were being wounded or killed. So it goes.” (p.135)
The phrase “So it goes” is almost associated with death, either of an individual or en masse. The aforementioned Derby is constantly popping up throughout the narrative, and every time he is brought up, his death by firing squad in Dresden for stealing a tea kettle is described. In the S-5 universe, there is no free well. The moment you die is, was, and always will be the moment you die, and nothing can change or prevent it. The above excerpt is one place where I think the “So it goes” is effective, but I don’t think it was necessary with the other innumerable mentions of death in the novel. There are so many instances where leaving it out would have made the moment so much more profound, but as they say, so it goes.

Overall, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is unique, innovative, and important. There are miles to mine and philosophize over underneath the surface of the text. It did rely more on a gimmick than I cared for, but this book is not short on merits and I definitely think you should give it a try. But please, go in understanding that it’s not for everyone. And if you’re one of those people who this book doesn’t speak to, that’s okay. And if it’s your favorite book ever, that’s great too.

Happy reading, you wonderful people. We'll see you again soon.

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