Monday, June 16, 2008

Thoughts Concerning Slaughterhouse Five

I've decided that by the end of this summer, I'll have read (or at least attempted to read — I don't have the time for things that don't interest me) every work of fiction on my bookshelf previously untouched by me.

And if my current pace continues, it shouldn't take too long.

Now, granted, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is a relatively short novel, but it also helped to remind me that when you really get into a story you can't put it down — and before you know it, 48 hours have passed between the first and last page and you're so thoroughly emerged in someone else's universe that you can scarcely return to your own.

Which is fitting, given the subject material: a semi-autobiographical sketch of Vonnegut's time spent as an American prisoner of War at a German work camp (literally: a slaughterhouse) in Dresden (which would be destroyed in a controversial firebombing while Vonnegut was still prisoner there). And while he, himself, is a minor character in the book — occasionally shouting lines and expressions that the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, overhears — it is important to remember that Vonnegut was a science fiction writer, and this World War II story is no exception.

Rather, Pilgrim himself is a POW at the same camp... and not to mention, a time traveler (but in a way that borders on PTSD) who is captured by aliens sometime after the war. The resultant narration thus jumps back and forth in time, between the present (late 1960s), early childhood, early adulthood, the war and so much in-between.

In many ways the past, present and future overlap, with Pilgrim being taught by his alien captors that time is a construct — the brainchild of shortsighted humans who mourn death without appreciating life.

And as with Flaubert: it was easy for me to see why this had been (and continues to be) so well-regarded. Only one thing really bothered me — the constant repetition of "so it goes" after every story, description and side note regarding death and dying. I understood the point, but that didn't make it any less annoying.

Also of note: this book is subtitled, "The Children's Crusade." And for good reason — a good percentage of our military force was (and continues to be) kids straight out of high school.

6 comments:

bookfraud said...

i read "slaughterhouse five" in college, where a snooty professor compared it to david letterman -- it was "not a work of art, but 'zany' humor appealing to high school students." whoo-boy. i think that the material needed that kind of tone, otherwise, it's impossible to digest.

i'll have to read it again. i mean, college was 56 years ago.

ds said...

pretty damned good stuff. reading vonnegut shows just how much freedom you have in the form.

Eli said...

Great book, and a good movie too, worth checking out!

Woodrow said...

I liked the "so it goes" bit.

M@ said...

One of my favorite movies, which I have on DVD. I mean, I've read a lot of his books, too, but I used to like to get really, really high and watch that movie....

I can hear the track-wheels of the German tanks now.

disgruntled world citizen said...

that is one of those books that i will never see the movie. its one of those novels that grips you and never quite lets go. i've tried other vonnegut novels, but i've never been able to get into them. SH5, is an amazing book, i've often wondered if high schoolers can "get it." kind of like catch-22.

good luck with your "project."