The Short Version: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time – and as he bounces between the decades of his life (a young man, an optometrist, a prisoner of war in Dresden, a prisoner of aliens on Tralfamadore), the novelist creating him considers his own time in Dresden and how best to write about it.
The Review: It feels fitting to me that the first review I’m publishing in 2017 is of a book that needs no review. Slaughterhouse-Five is the Vonnegut we’ve all read, sometime in high school probably. I myself can’t recall the first time I read it – it feels like it would’ve been senior year but it could’ve been college and anyway I start thinking and suddenly I’m bound to be as unstuck in time as the author or his creation.
But, in that pleasant way that classics often provide for their readers, Slaughterhouse-Five feels like the one book we probably all ought to read in 2017 – for the first time or for the hundredth – because, well, this is our world now and Kurt, unfortunately, has been dead these last ten years. What might he’ve said about the last decade? On the one hand, we can only imagine. On the other, we don’t need to: he said all that a person could possibly say about our world while he was around. This is not his best book (that’s probably, for my money so far, Mother Night) but it is, with good reason, the one we all read: because it speaks most broadly to the things he wanted us, as readers and as humans, to grapple with.
Take this passage from near the end of the novel, one I’d forgotten about until this most recent re-read:
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.
My father died many years ago now – of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
Sweet Christmas, those last lines cut right through any bullshit you might’ve built up around your heart and if they don’t affect you, it’s quite possible you’re truly inhuman or at least inhumane. As we descend (I can’t think of a better verb) into 2017, the first year in which we’ll be ruled by a composite of knockoff authoritarianism, adolescent cluelessness, and altogether more frightening mandatory conservativism, I rather want to post this on my wall as a reminder. Kurt’s father was a gun nut; Kurt clearly doesn’t like those guns. Guns killed so many, great and ordinary; it is possible to like guns and still be a ‘sweet’ person. These are reminders, both of the fear and sadness that consume our world… and of the essential goodness that is possible in humanity. How else could one read it, and survive?
On a literary level, this is one of Vonnegut’s more curious books. It opens and concludes with sections from and about the author himself – and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a character here, very tangentially. It borders, at times, on Hitchcockian cameo: as the story passes through a scene, there is a shout or an observation from an unnamed character who turns out, our author tells us, to’ve been the author himself. He is, in an almost free-writing way, trying to create his long-promised book about Dresden by just putting pen to paper. And while this book ends up being about Dresden, about memory, about the passage of time… it also feels, well, personal. It feels like the author coming to terms with the concept of death in an existential way – and when you take it that way, you could argue that “So it goes” stands right up there with “One always finds one’s burden again” in terms of existential philosophy. Vonnegut faces an absurd world but he is not quite Camus’ absurd man: he believes that there is, yes, right and wrong… but that he can, indeed must, be his own master. How else could you survive in a universe where over a hundred thousand people were obliterated in an evening and you, among barely one hundred others, lived?
I’m asking lots of “how else” questions – but I suppose that’s rather the point of this book. Look at all the things that happen to Billy Pilgrim, to Kilgore Trout, to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. They move forward in their lives as best they can; how else should they move (even if that movement is not necessarily linearly forward along the clock)? How else could or should all of us move?
One more thing before I go, on those authorial interjections: why don’t folks think of Vonnegut as the (or at least ‘a’) father of auto-fiction? I won’t speak too much further on this right now as I’m mulling the worth of writing an article about it – but here (and in so many other books) Vonnegut-as-author is a present character. He is speaking about his own life, sometimes even more frequently than he does in this book (and he does it quite a bit here), and he’s doing it in such a way that it turns life into a kind of semi-fiction. Is this the real story? Absolutely not. But is it fully fictionalized? Ditto. My mind whirrs…
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Is there any other rating possible? It’s better than just a 5 out of 5, we all know this. It wouldn’t have not only stood the test of time but continued to morph and evolve to speak to generation after generation if it weren’t somehow truly transcendent of “ratings”. As I’ve said before: this book does not need a rating. It does not need my rating, it does not need yours. It exists as a fundamental truth, one that may strike you one way now and another someday in the future. It exists outside of time, not necessarily because of its greatness but because the world Vonnegut is trying to consider (and was for all his life, pretty much – certainly from the Dresden bombing onward) continues to defy our attempts to change it. The world might look mighty different on a superficial level from the world of the 1970s, but when it comes to fundamental truths, you might say we’ve come unstuck in time. Good thing ol’ Kurt came unstuck with us.