Friday, October 15, 2010

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I started off liking this book. Then I didn’t like it. Then I liked it again.

Let me explain.

Re: I started off liking this book. The first chapter is awesome. It's told in Vonnegut’s own voice, and it’s about the book he’s going to write about his experience in World War II (i.e., the book you’re reading, Slaughterhouse-Five). It’s clever and totally deconstructs the novel form. He tells you on page 4 what the climax of this book is going to be, as he’s talking to an old war buddy about the project.

“Listen—” I said, “I’m writing this book about Dresden. I’d like some help remembering stuff. I wonder if I could come down and see you, and we could drink and talk and remember.”

He was unenthusiastic. He said he couldn’t remember much. He told me, though, to come ahead.

“I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,” I said. “The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

“Um,” said O’Hare.

“Don’t you think that’s really where the climax should come?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “That’s your trade, not mine.”

The book that follows does indeed contain a character named Edgar Derby, but his execution is hardly the climax of the story. Every time he’s mentioned, Vonnegut reminds the reader that he’s going to get shot, and when it finally does happen it practically happens off stage. By telling us up front what the climax is going to be, Vonnegut destroys its effectiveness. He renders it impotent and takes away its sting. But there’s more than that going on here. O’Hare says, “that’s your trade, not mine,” calling attention to the idea that novel writing is a trade, and that it, like all trades, has tools. Tools like character development, plot exposition, rising action and climaxes. Slaughterhouse-Five has precious little of any of that, because Slaughterhouse-Five is not so much a novel as it is a commentary on the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it.

Re: Then I didn’t like it. So then we get into the book, and are introduced to the protagonist, who isn’t Vonnegut, but an optometrist from Ilium, New York named Billy Pilgrim, who also fought in World War II and was present for the bombing of Dresden. Billy, as Vonnegut famously writes, “has come unstuck in time,” meaning that he seemingly jumps from time period to time period within his own life throughout the course of the novel.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that this is Vonnegut’s metaphor for war, a place where a soldier “has no control over where he is going next,” and where he lives in “a constant state of stage fright.” It also is a remnant of the trauma Billy suffered in Germany, the time travel more mental than physical for him, especially as his life also includes time periods where he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. I don’t like this part of the novel—or at least didn’t while I was first reading it. It’s rough and jarring and unbelievable (more metaphors for war, perhaps?), but even so, some of Vonnegut’s genius begins to slip through.

It starts with a couple of Billy’s encounters with the Tralfamadorians. When he is first taken for observation:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And later, when he is actually taken back to Tralfamadore to live in a zoo:

“Where am I?” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Trapped in another blob of amber, Mr. Pilgrim. We are where we have to be just now—three hundred million miles from Earth, bound for a time warp which will get us to Tralfamadore in hours rather than centuries.”

“How—how did I get here?”

“It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

And I realize that this silliness about Tralfamadore is really very serious business, because through it Vonnegut is expressing his commentary about war and the men who fight in them. This piques my interest, and I begin to pay closer attention to what’s happening to Billy as he bounces around in time and space.

Re: Then I liked it again. And while I’m paying more attention, I bump into this:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“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 at once, not one after the other. 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 is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, 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.”

Which, of course, is an accurate description of what Vonnegut is trying to do with Slaughterhouse-Five.

These adventures on Tralfamadore, then, like all good science fiction, become fantastic analogies for the realities that Vonnegut is trying to convey, and since the reality he is trying to convey is the nearly inscrutable subject of war, the more fantastic the analogies become, the more accurate they can be in describing the indescribable. The Tralfamadorians put Billy on display in their zoo, and the general Tralfamadorian public has a hard time understanding him and his behaviors, because the two species perceive time in drastically different ways. So Billy’s Tralfamadorian guide gives them an analogy.

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightways. Whatever poor Billy saw though the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”

I believe that Vonnegut is not just describing Billy’s “vision” in relation to that of the Tralfamadorians, but in fact is describing a human’s vision in relation to the actual reality that surrounds him or her, not just on the battlefield of war, but in everyday life. “That’s life,” we all say, but it isn’t really. It’s just what we are able to perceive.

And then there’s the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it. In the course of Billy’s time jumping, he comes across a hack science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout.

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

See what I mean? In the parable of science fiction the inscrutable becomes clear. It takes the steel sphere with its eyehole pipe off our heads and lets us see the reality that surrounds us. Through the periscope, burning the innocent city dwellers of the enemy to death with jellied gasoline may pass the constructed morality test of our times and our society, but abstracted to the world of robots and aliens, the utter lunacy and immorality of it all becomes apparent.

That’s Slaughterhouse-Five in a nutshell. And taken from this perspective, the novel is a remarkable achievement.


  1. A robot with halitosis? How is that even possible? And it was cured? By whom? I guess that is something worthy to be shared with my knoxville dentist for a good laugh. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Geoff. But why are you pimping your dentist on this blog?