Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Published in 1969
Genre: Satire, science fiction, dark comedy
“All this happened, more or less.”
Writers are told that the first sentence of their book should simultaneously catch the reader’s eye and set the tone for the story; Vonnegut has achieved both of these with the infamous opening line of Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is a man who has come unstuck in time. This doesn’t happen to him of his own accord but is simply something that does happen, will happen, and has always happened. The story of Slaughterhouse-Five flows in and out of time, can be confusing at parts, but finds its way back on course over the years of Billy’s life.
With that initial sentence, the credibility of the narrator comes into question. The narrator tells Billy’s story through a third person perspective, occasionally mentioning his presence in the actual events, so we know that it is not Billy. Is it Mr. Vonnegut himself or simply another character telling their part? This difficulty to separate the truth from fabrication plays into the scrutiny of Billy’s stories of alien abduction and time travel. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in World War II and was kept in the basement of an abandoned slaughterhouse (“Schlachthof-fünf” or “Slaughterhouse-five” for those not of the German persuasion. Quotation marks can be “fun”) in Dresden when it was fire bombed, so while there is a factual background, the story muddles reality through its fantasy.
Much of the plot concerns the Tralfamadorians and their philosophy of life based on how they perceive time. This alien race, described as looking similar to plungers with a hand on top that has a green eye within its palm, sees time as one long continuum. They exist in the fourth dimension and see the beginning and ending of all things. Due to this type of temporal perception, the inhabitants of Tralfamadore have a simple phrase that sums up their view of death: “So it goes.” Since death and birth are two ends of a spectrum that they can see the entirety of, every living thing exists as being both alive and dead in different moments and while a human at death may not be doing well, there are plenty of other moments in which they are doing just fine.
Billy learns about this when he is abducted by the aliens and made to live in a zoo exhibit, the events of which are visited multiple times in the story. The book jumps around and isn’t in chronological order, usually in accordance with Billy’s time traveling which typically occurs in moments of great stress. This nonlinear storytelling aids in the understanding of the overarching themes of fatalism and a resignation to the idea that terrible and good things happen according to coincidence rather than providence. Tralfamadorian books are made of small sections of words on each page that are meant to be read all at once; since that is impossible for humans to do, I believe the structure of the book is Vonnegut’s attempt to express that sentiment as well as humanly possible. So it goes.
There is also a strange juxtaposition of the horrible events of war with the ridiculousness of human experience. Much of this comes from Billy’s time in the first P.O.W. camp. Upon arriving, the exhausted and languished American prisoners are greeted by swarthy Englishmen who are all in impeccable shape. The English then put on an all male production of Cinderella to welcome their new comrades, as well as a feast that ends up making most of the Americans sick due to the sudden richness of their diet. Billy, who arrived without shoes and a proper coat, commandeers the makeshift Cinderella shoes (combat boots painted silver) and an azure curtain from the stage to better accommodate himself. This humor seems out of place in the devastation of World War II, but it continues the theme of events simply happening as they will.
Though the narrator begins the book by explaining its subject as being about the American fire bombing of Dresden in WWII, the actual event itself is mentioned almost exclusively in passing until there is no choice but to address it. There is a little background about the narrator’s research into the bombing at the beginning of the book (something we saw in Cat’s Cradle), but once Billy’s narrative begins, it is barely brought up unless in necessary context for the current action in the story. This serves, along with Billy’s apathetic attitude, to downplay the event. The statistics are simply presented and the horrible descriptions of the aftermath are stated with a sort of distance and lack of presence that is punctuated by the saying, “So it goes.”
Slaughterhouse-Five touches on some profound subject matter with a nearly disinterested recollection that follows the tenants of Tralfamadorian thought. Since Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of the destruction he witnessed at Dresden was written in in a science fiction vein, he was able to give himself enough distance, while remaining present, to tell the story he felt must be shared with the world. This book reminds us that human beings have the capacity to be cruel and strange and fallible no matter what flag we salute or which country we call home. So it goes.
Verdict: 5 statements of “So it goes” out of 5
Recommended for: Fatalists, fans of nonlinear storytelling, aficionados of aliens that resemble plungers, and you!
Not recommended for: Those who hate the phrase “So it goes” (it appears 106 times in the book), Edgar Derby, or children (there’s a bit of adult content present including a pencil drawing of breasts with a locket between them).