Yeah I know. I’m like… 40some years late on the reading of this book by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m also writing from a different computer than my home one, so I have no pictures. If you need one, go to B&N.com and look up Slaughterhouse Five. 🙂Alright this review is a little different than most, I’d think, because I won’t write about the greatness or weakness of the novel. It’s an established novel, I loved it, and I understand why it’s considered his best work. I also had the good fortune of reading his God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater novel, and while great in its own respect, not as well-constructed as this work of art.
That being said I love how so much of what this novel does is lost on the average reader. This is not just a novel about war. Or death (so it goes). This is about finding ways to cope with war. And death. Time plays a strong role in this short read, and one of the things that strikes me strongest is the possibility that the main character, Billy Pilgrim, might have found the secret to the afterlife. He is, first off, written as a character by someone else: this is not the author. This is a novel where Vonnegut puts his own heart and soul into it, as a personal story about his personal experiences on war. Billy is written in a reconstructed way, remembering (and reliving) memories so vividly, and out of order, that it seems he’s traveling through time to experience them.
I don’t believe he is. Or, I believe he is through memory. Through the author’s memory. Which is why he seems so out of place on the battlefield, in civilian clothes, without proper protection or firepower. It’s beautiful to think the author character used Billy as a stand-in to help him get his war memories out. Ah, psychological complications. And the idea that Billy has no armament, no sturdy boots, no weapons against the full aggressiveness of Nazi Germany makes it all the more soulful.
More important about time, though, is the common thread Vonnegut uses to write about war and humanity: he directly echoes TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, Milton’s fourth dimensional focus in, well, most of his later writings, and countless other turn of the century writers. I don’t think many people apply Vonnegut’s explanation of the fourth dimension to other great writers, but when one uses the lens of Eliot et cetera, you see the collaboration (and possibly corroboration?) of thematic elements that dives far deeper than a “simple” fourth dimensional recount of war. It is brilliant and fleshed out in strange ways I never expected.
Finally, the detachment of this story (as explained on the back cover of my copy: a story of sadness without tears) makes this novel far more palatable than I initially expected. I thought it’d be vicious and violent and full of death (and so it goes), and it was, but written with such a detached, methodical nature and strange hopefulness (in which Time plays a strong role, once more), that it becomes a story within a story. Mr. Pilgrim is a wartime everyman private. At one point a character stands up to speak eloquently against Nazism, and Vonnegut explains this is a novel about removing individualism, removing character. Because that is what war does. Except in this moment, poor old Derby was an actual character.
And yes, the author refers to Derby as “Poor old Derby” in every instance, because he and we the readers knew he would die for something petty and unimportant. The novel is brilliant, transcendent in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, written in such a succinct and straightforward narrative, the jumps in time simply happen.
Plus, you know, transcendentalism. Seldom have I seen an author explain a way to understand time as non-linear. Seldom have I seen an author explain war separatism in a way that actually puts me there. Yes, this is a novel about war. It’s moreso a novel about the inextricable march toward death, and how one can find hope beyond it. It’s a novel about humanity.
Now, as soon as I finished this little gem I moved on to The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, which is a horse of a completely different color. When I finish, I’ll have something to say about it as well. Not as inspiring, but written by a developed writer.