Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte, 1969)
Thanks to a friend’s American Author Reading Challenge (read at least one book by a specific author in each month of 2014), I finally tackled this classic novel that has been on my shelves forever. It’s hard for me to understand how I didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that the main character was named Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden in World War II featured prominently, but so it goes. It was a surprise and a delight to discover the way Vonnegut used farcical situations and humor to illuminate some deadly serious events.
The central conceit of the novel, if that’s the right term for it, is that Billy Pilgrim has the unsettling habit of becoming “unstuck in time”, wherein he travels backwards and forwards in the timeline of his own life, experiencing and re-experiencing the things that have happened or will happen to him. Pilgrim himself is convinced that the catalyst is a race of extraterrestrials who at one point kidnap him and put him on display in a sort of human zoo on their home planet. Vonnegut leaves it to the reader to decide what they think is the real cause of the time traveling episodes. Is Pilgrim mentally ill? Did his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war during WWII unhinge his brain? Are the Tralfmadorians real, with their non-linear understanding of what time is? Billy tries to explain their sense of time:
It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’.
It’s easy to see how such a philosophy might comfort a man who has seen unimaginable death and destruction, in the war and back home in upstate New York.
I found myself marking many passages as I read Slaughterhouse-Five and I could fill a review with them. But I’ll end with just one more quote, which though written in 1969 could as easily have been penned in some non-linear today or tomorrow:
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive truth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
So it goes.