Monday, March 7, 2011

Why I'm More Ambivalent To Slaughter-House Five Than Most...

The Good: Concept, Moments of character, Variety of ways the book may be interpreted
The Bad: Writing style, Lack of character development
The Basics: In a weak "recommend," Kurt Vonnegut Jr. undermines his story of time traveler Billy Pilgrim by tearing the reader consistently out of the narrative.

As a novelist, it always intrigues me when friends of mine recommend a book to me, especially when I'm discussing my current projects or my life's work. I am fairly sure it was when I was discussing some of the elements of my life's work when a coworker and friend insisted I ought to read Slaughter-House Five. It was either then or when I was gushing about The Time Traveler's Wife By Audrey Niffenegger (reviewed here!). As it stands, his recommendation came with a copy of the book and given that I'm not one to turn away a gift like that - or to make light of it - I have now, six months later, just finished my first reading of Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Alas, I am not as impressed as I think I was supposed to be, though I did find some concepts particularly noteworthy in the novel. This was my first experience with the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and before I go into a more thorough analysis and review of the book, my place as a reviewer suggests that I ought to try to make the book comprehensible. If there could be a mixing of the book The Time Traveler's Wife and the film Brazil (reviewed here!), Slaughter-House Five might well be it, though I certainly enjoyed the other two works more than this one. And it is not because I did not GET Slaughter-House Five; with all of the repetition, it's hard not to. I understood the book, but the narrative technique was so off-putting as to make the entire first chapter so unpleasant that after the chore of reading that was done, the rest of the book breezed by.

Following a chapter which is essentially the foreword to the book (see my griping below), Billy Pilgrim is introduced as a man who has a strange relationship with time. Described as "unstuck in time," Billy whisks forward and backward through time and place to various events in his life. As a prisoner of war, he is taken by train to a Russian p.o.w. camp in Germany before being taken to Dresden a few months before the fire-bombing of the city.

Having - apparently - survived that heinous bit of warfare, Billy returns to the United States after the end of World War Two where he becomes an optometrist, marries, has children, is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who take him back to their planet to use him in a zoo. On Tralfamadore, he is encouraged to mate with porn-star Montana Wildhack, before he is returned to Earth, survives a plane crash and befuddles his adult daughter when he begins to discuss his experiences on Tralfamadore publicly.

First, what works: conceptually, Slaughter-House Five is a winner. Vonnegut weaves together some beautifully complex ideas with such deceptive simplicity that it is easy to understand some of the more advanced concepts he is presenting. Most notable among these is that there are alternative visions of time. Indeed, Slaughter-House Five is set up as a rebellion against linear time and it works beautifully in that regard. Billy's story jumps between times and places so that it illustrates the concept of every moment in time being like a fly in amber perfectly. The novel shows what it is about quite clearly. In fact, it is hard not to understand Vonnegut's vision of non-linear time by the end of the novel, given how almost all of the novel is presented out of order.

Especially clever, though, is the way Vonnegut writes Slaughter-House Five so that it may be interpreted in multiple ways. The first is the literal and straightforward interpretations: that Billy Pilgrim truly is a man unstuck in time such that he journeys to different times and places in his life. There is also another, more metaphorical interpretation possible, which is no less plausible. Given that Billy Pilgrim takes a severe head injury, it is no doubt a common interpretation that Billy's traveling through time is the way his brain-damaged mind tries to reconcile everything around him.

In the latter interpretation, then, Slaughter-House Five is not so much a science fiction novel as it is a man reconciling his world and his experiences through science fiction conceits. As a result, there are no Tralfamadorians, but rather Billy extrapolates them from the writings of his favorite science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. In fact, the novel doesn't even have to be a result of the head injury; it could simply be a reaction to seeing the carnage of the firestorm in Dresden. In other words, things like being lost in his perspective of time, making love to a porn star (clear wish fulfillment) after marrying a humdrum wife who he is not particularly attracted to, being abducted by aliens and the head injury merely become how he is able to reconcile surviving an event wherein hundreds of thousands around him died.

Viewed through that critical lens, Slaughter-House Five is much better than as a science fiction work.

I say this because from a straightforward interpretation, Slaughter-House Five is rocky at best. This is largely due to the first chapter, which are twenty-two pages of author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (or his fictionalized self or some omnipotent narrator of the book) expounding upon how the book came to be written and how hard it was to write. The thing is, this is twenty-two pages that have almost nothing to do with the narrative and call the rest of the narrative into question.

In other words, if we are to be invested in Billy Pilgrim, one way or another, the reader must believe in his reality - even if it is the ravings of a shell-shocked man. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. tells us the story of Billy Pilgrim. Let me rephrase that: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. TELLS us the story of Billy Pilgrim. This isn't a story about Billy Pilgrim written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., it is Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sitting by a fireside with his rapt audience telling them the story of Billy Pilgrim in his conversational style. This is why when the story of Billy pilgrim begins in chapter two, it opens with "Listen:" not, as many people like to believe, the classic line "Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time" (23). This after twenty-two pages of Vonnegut telling the reader about driving out to spend time with his friend O'Hare.

It would be especially cynical of me to suggest that Vonnegut included those first twenty-two pages only to explain why he had taken so long to write the book and to explain his own dedication page and the full title of the novel. The (mostly) full title to the book is actually Slaughter-House Five Or The Children's Crusade with the subtitle "A Duty-Dance With Death." How does it get the "or . .. " part? Vonnegut promised O'Hare's wife that in order to get her to stop hating him.

I suppose I am that cynical. I have reason to be, though; as the story of Billy Pilgrim progressed, I managed to get into it, despite not finding much in the way of character development and finding myself browbeaten by the concept. And as the novel is drawing toward a close, Vonnegut reinserts himself into the narrative.

Vonnegut either assumes he is writing a completely novel concept or that his readers are absolute morons with the sheer repetition that occurs throughout the book. So, for example, chapter nine begins with "Here is how Billy Pilgrim lost his wife, Valencia" (182). This comes after many chapters where we've already established who Valencia is, so constantly re-referencing the person and where and when Billy knows them from becomes tiresome - this example is just the first I could give. Moreover, there is something problematic with the names on page 187 where a character is referenced as "Saundby" on one line and "Saundy" on another . . .

But this is nitpicky. What isn't is that Vonnegut's writing style is tiresome to anyone who is paying attention and has a brain. There aren't a huge number of characters in "Slaughter-House Five" and because the settings are so specific, the reader does not need so much of the information repeated. This works for maintaining a conversational style of storytelling, but not so much to keep the reader invested in the story being told or - most importantly - the character from developing.

Instead, Billy Pilgrim is presented as a fictional character and that doesn't work for me. In fiction, we become invested in fictional characters all of the time, most often because we become enamored with their growth or their adventures. In either case, the reader must accept the reality of the character's situation and we accept - in some ways - the character as real. Vonnegut's writing style presents Billy Pilgrim AS a character, so there is no reality to become invested in.

But Vonnegut's style is not quite enough to get me to sink this very repetitive book. I understand that some of the repetition is to help make the point about how nonlinear time is all moments at once. That is clear. But the style does gut a lot of the intrigue and interest in Slaughter-House Five, making it hard to dig through and be satisfied at the end.

For other classics of American literature, please check out my reviews of:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
V by Thomas Pynchon
The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner


For other book reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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