Monday, June 2, 2008

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

"Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it though, I promise you, there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne."

Last year, several of us got together and sort of unofficially agreed that Kurt Vonnegut was overrated. We had a few drinks, watched the 1987 movie adaptation of Harrison Bergenon, and nodded our heads knowingly as one criticism after another was leveled at the late author. I joined in, partly because of peer pressure and partly because the Pepsi bubbles were going straight to my head. I stumbled out of Carlton's house, head crazy with brief paragraphs and absurd non-sequitirs, and began Slaughterhouse-Five.

I read S5 when I was in high school and remember enjoying it on at least a "this is a really strange book" sort of level. Beyond that, Vonnegut's story of Billy Pilgrim, a man unstuck in time, didn't resonate much with me. Billy's abduction by Tralfamadorians seemed like a golly-gee plot device that didn't mean much, and the whole thing left me in a bit of a muddle. I'm glad I gave it another shot.

The plot can be summarized in a short paragraph: Billy Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians, aliens from another galaxy, while fighting in World War II, just before the bombing of Dresden. The story is told through a series of anecdotal paragraphs, tied together by Vonnegut's authorial voice. The narrative, like Billy himself, jumps around in time, and manages to contrast the brutality of war with the beauty and absurdity of life, a high achievement for a book with a full-page line drawing of a pair of breasts, but it succeeds.

There's really nothing I can say in a review like this that will describe how this book affected me. It packed an emotional punch like nothing else I've read this year, and, even though I'm still not entirely sold on Vonnegut, this book is beautiful.

Slaughterhouse-Five is infinitely quotable, but I want to end this review with my favorite excerpt from the book, where a Tralfamadorian is describing to Billy how Tralfamadorian books work. It's a fantastic encapsulation of both the book's style and message:

"There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all together, not one after another. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that beautiful, surprising, and deep. There is no beginning, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

And so it goes.


Elizabeth said...

Truly, do you love this book solely on the ending excerpt?

Nihil Novum said...

The ending excerpt was a big contributor, but there were loads of quotable portions.

Olson said...

See, maybe I liked this for the reasons you didn't. I resonated with it because of the bizarreness of how in life we can find ourselves in one situation and then in a next. I haven't read this in five years but I remember it making an impact.