Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five
During my run on American classics, I halfheartedly purchased Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The audiobook was on a super sell and it had James Franco as the reader. Described as some type of dark comedy, sci-fi I was reluctant to start it, but found myself with a bit of Fitzgerald burnout and decided to give it a spin.
Published in 1969, I can safely say I have not read anything like Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut's style of writing was like watching Maury after the poise of Fitzgerald. That wasn't especially a bad thing. Like a pallet cleanser when tasting food, I knew that at the very least Slaughterhouse-Five would provide a good clean slate for my next book. Kill some petty tastebuds or something. So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the strange narrative of Billy Pilgrim and his life. Billy becomes "unstuck" from the linear nature of his life and the reader is along for the ride. A chaplain's assistant in World War II, Billy Pilgrim is the foil for the average man engaging love, ethics, the horrors of war, science, aliens, and the vanity of it all.
With sequence upon sequence presenting little semblance or connection to one another, Slaughterhouse-Five struck me as an example of postmodern or abstract art in the medium of literature. But Vonnegut's book is not without its own poignant themes. It is an anti-war book. It is an anti-death book. It presents a philosophy questioning the purpose of life amidst determinism. In the course of the narrative, Billy Pilgrim is introduced (re-introduced?) to aliens known as Tralfamadorians (a race that shows up in multiple works by Vonnegut). Existing in a "fourth dimension" (itself a type of timeless omnipresence), the Tralfamadorians recognize intriguing futileness of human existence. Even in death, they are only dead then and not at all the other times. So it goes.
The story is delightfully crass and dark. Left within the chaos are impressions of questions and stinging criticisms. Only at the end can one look back upon the sequence of events and piece together the full (often contradictory) statement being made by any individual sequence. The book contains but doesn't end with the death of Billy Pilgrim. No, he lives on forever with these strange scenes and people asking us to re-read and learn.
Having not read Vonnegut on my own, my introduction to his style was through the reading of James Franco. I am confident that Franco's reading will not be for everyone. The monotone and almost bored reading fit the nonchalant nature of Pilgrim who never seems entirely interested in the particular sequence of life that he is living. The reoccurring phrase "so it goes" is used every time a mention of death occurs. Franco himself murmurs and slurs it in a way that sticks in your head.
In a world and narrative where death is just a time of darkness for the "unstuck" Billy Pilgrim, the state is something moved through and never encompassing since it permanently exists alongside every other moment in life. In some strange way, Franco's slurring "so it goes" helps communicate this. I found it all hypnotic and fantastic.
In conclusion, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of its status as an American classic. It's dark and funny. It is introspective and scathing. Its subject matter and presentation certainly won't be for everyone. I have no intention putting this book in front of my kids next week. Yet, I immediately needed a paperback of this fine book for our library. I am eager to return to this and read it in my own voice.
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:
Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.