This is my third time through on Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel. Vonnegut is my favorite author and undoubtedly the one who had the biggest impact on me. I read all of his novels and most of his published work between the ages of 15 and 21, so I hit him at just the right time. Vonnegut’s skepticism, his anger, and his deconstruction of widely held beliefs let me know that I wasn’t the only person having blasphemous, sacrilegious thoughts about God and Uncle Sam.
But because I was at a susceptible age when I first encountered Vonnegut, I am always a little apprehensive about diving back in. What if I discover that Vonnegut wasn’t the revolutionary, incendiary figure that I still venerate today?
Nevertheless I have reread quite a few of the novels, and the results are quite interesting. Some of my favorites seem to dim with maturity, while others that I ranked in the middle or rearguard have become more valued. Cat’s Cradle started to seem tedious the second time through, whereas God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Deadeye Dick seemed much better crafted than I gave them credit for. My favorite Vonnegut novel is thus constantly in flux and will be for the rest of my life I suppose.
I read Vonnegut on my own in high school after an intellectual rival of mine told me about it. (I was that kind of kid, I couldn’t stand thinking any of my friends might be better-read than I was.) While I enjoyed the unconventionality, the humor, and the brazen strangeness of the book, I was undoubtedly too young to truly get Vonnegut’s central thesis.
A college course on American authors really allowed me to see Vonnegut’s fear of the power of narrative, it’s ability to convince us of things that are dangerous and untrue. It was the best experience I had as an English major in college, going through Vonnegut’s carefully laid-out argument against traditional stories. Vonnegut constantly eludes to the Cinderella fairy tale, war movies, or the Gospels of Christ, to show how these narratives teach the wrong lessons and serve more to keep people under control than anything else.
This time I read Slaughter-house Five on the Kindle, which I think possibly might have diminished the experience a little bit. This reading found me more impressed than entertained. I suppose it’s hard to be surprised and delighted three times by the same thing. Still, Vonnegut’s commitment to his anti-narrative stance is impressive. Vonnegut’s story, of the WWII POW Billy Pilgrim’s coming “unstuck in time” due to his traumatic experiences during the bombing of Dresden, doesn’t really come to an end. Nor does it really begin. In the phenomenal first chapter, Vonnegut introduces the idea that anti-war novels are ineffectual, that stories about war do more to propagate it than end it, and that the story form in and of itself is dangerous. This is why he tells the reader upfront pretty much everything that will happen in the course of the novel, from Billy’s abduction to Tralfamadore to his death at the hands of an assassin in 1976.
Technically, the book never makes it to 1976, at least not the way readers would expect. We never see Edgar Derby shot for stealing a tea kettle either, but we’ve heard it so many times that its omission can go unnoticed.
Where does the book end? Well, according to the Tralfamadorian concept of time, all events occur at once, and could only have occurred in that way. So there is no end, no beginning, just a series of moments, carefully chosen, all adding up to one arresting image.