Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For a very long time, I hated Kurt Vonnegut. More specifically, I hated Slaughterhouse-Five. It was assigned to me during my first or second year of high school, so I was still doing debate and still in the throes of what I like to call “The Wombat Years”—a bad period spanning most of my adolescence that featured bangs, rabid femmephobia, and constant, quiet anger. That last one had a hair trigger, and Vonnegut tripped it by, in my memory, calling Billy’s daughter “a bitch”. (This may or may not actually happen in the book.) I finished the book, since it was for school, but I scowled more than usual all the way. I am no longer a wombat, but that loathing remained. I did know I’d have to revisit this eventually for Reading by Ear—I just didn’t read that much as a kid, y’all!—but I was expecting the worst. And all I’ve got to say is praise and hallejulah, the Wombat Years are behind us.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim. An awkward kid and aspiring optometrist in the 1940s, Billy is drafted into World War II as a Chaplain’s Assistant. After the Battle of the Bulge, Billy experiences, for the first time but not the last time, time-travel, seeing his entire life. Immediately after, he is captured by the Germans and ends up in Dresden during its infamous firebombing. When he returns to America, he is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamador, whose view of time is nonlinear and whose presence possibly explains his own experiences with time travel. He keeps his abduction and experiences secret until after the death of his wife, when he decides to share the truth about time with the world.
“If you’re going to use science fiction in your novel, use it!” was my main comment on Slaughterhouse-Five in that sophomore English class. Ever eager to defend the home genres, the fact that Vonnegut had dared to utilize science fiction in a way that did not accord with my understanding of the genre made me see red. This is, of course, the madness of my adolescence. Speculative fiction has remained my home genre because of the diverse utilities of its elements—what can be used as escapism in one text can be used to stare into the depths of the human soul in another. The use of time travel and the docile Tralfamadorians is how Vonnegut is able to span Billy’s life and examine how humans experience time in non-linear ways, despite our adherence to a linear concept of time. Billy has no control over his traveling, much as we have no control over what memories a sense can awaken in us; I always start whenever I smell salt water, because I’m suddenly a child—an actually child-sized child, which is quite the novelty for me—running down a beach in California, tripping over seaweed and spitting in the sand. The Tralfamadorian concept of time may seem alien at first, but it’s really identical to how we experience memory, how we experience the time that belongs to us. In the middle of the novel, Billy travels between World War II and the dark of a night in fifties suburbia. Details between the two scenes are shared, such as cold feet being colored “blue and ivory”, recalling the much more common form of time travel.
While Billy’s life is quite eventful, there’s no real structure to the novel. It’s a thoughtful, meandering thing, wading in the shallows of its quiet, occasionally lightened despair. The reason for this is explained by the novel’s first chapter, which is written in Vonnegut’s own voice. Vonnegut intended to write a novel about the war, but it’s impossible to “say anything intelligent about a massacre”. It feels like Vonnegut is circling around his own feelings and experiences about World War II and the firebombing of Dresden with Slaughterhouse-Five, although he stated that Billy was not based on him. (And that’s a cunning bit of time travel, too—his writing is always in the present tense, even though he’s left it.) So when he finally does appear, in Dresden, as a sick prisoner, as he was in reality, it’s heartwrenching to see him become that vulnerable, stripped away from all the distancing devices of his novel.
That vulnerability is underscored by Ethan Hawke’s narration, quiet and a little downtrodden. I had a few nights where I didn’t want to listen to the book—not because I didn’t want to move further, but because facing that on my last week at college was just too much. Despite the subtle nature of Hawke’s performance, though, it’s still magnetic, making the musical cues (which sound like the younger sibling of Inception’s infamous foghorn) more intrusive than usual. But worse is a short interview with Vonnegut, which immediately follows the end of the book. After spending time with Billy and his horrific, life-altering experience with war, it’s very hard to hear Vonnegut and a friend laugh a little about their experiences in World War II in such a jocular fashion. Obviously, Vonnegut isn’t perfect—the women of Slaughterhouse-Five are not terribly well-realized, save for Valencia, Billy’s wife—but I did expect Slaughterhouse-Five’s dismal view of war out of him. Alas. At least the bizarre spoken-word song that finishes out the audiobook presentation recalls the slippery nature of time as posited by Billy and the Tralfamadorians.
Bottom line: Slaughterhouse-Five is a thoughtful, meandering novel about war, time, and memory, as expressed by Billy Pilgrim’s compulsive time travel and the Tralfamadorians’ non-linear view of time. The audiobook is quite good, save for its additions at the end. Get yourself familiar; it comes up a lot.
I rented this audiobook from the public library.