Title: Slaughterhouse-Five Author: Kurt Vonnegut Language: English Publication details: London: Vintage Classics, 2000. (First published 1969) Pages: 177
This book started out rather slow for me. Maybe it’s because the first chapter was simply an introduction from Vonnegut, and as wise both in thoughts and words as the man is (as according to numerous book sites), I couldn’t help wondering if the rest of the book was going to continue as this sort of meta-narration.
I have to say, from
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
This book was a hell of a ride. Not a ‘Mad-max Fury Road we’re all gonna die’ ride, nor a ‘Child 44 what the SHIT is gonna happen next’ ride, but a ‘look at all these bad things happening around us…it’s poignantly tragic, don’t you think?’ kinda ride. So it goes.
Well I can certainly understand the hype for Vonnegut now (well not completely, but at least I now have the ground knowledge to pretend I do when people bring him up). When I first started the story, I was wondering what on earth was going on. World war two, protagonist called Billy, he apparently travels back and forth in time? Ok, fine…I get that.Then suddenly there’s this planet called Tralfamadore and Billy’s being transported there to live in an alien zoo and the aliens see everything in a single space-time continuum thing and everyone thinks that Billy’s crazy, but Billy’s trying to calmly and firmly convince them that he’s not, and though at first I began the book on Billy’s side, I was starting to ask myself, “Does this man have his screws set straight or is PTSD making him go loopy?”
If it is, he’ll receive no judgement from me. Billy’s gone through some real shit.
The thing is, and this might be really obvious to some but it wasn’t to me because I’m a kleptomaniac, and I take things literally (Ba-dum-tss! Ok, I’ll show myself out now), you really can’t read the book as a science-fiction story. Or can you? I don’t have an expert opinion, but my “amateur opinion” is that I went in expecting a science fiction story, and was thus really confused for a good first half of the book.
After reading some rather insightful paragraphs and dialogues which had me mentally exclaiming “Well said, indeed!”, and basking in the horrifying glory of the depictions of the battlefield, I started to realize that the story wasn’t really about aliens and time-travel, but about the absurdity and tragic leftovers of war. Billy had seen such shit that he really doesn’t think it all that weird to be zapped up by aliens, nor could he really be bothered to care.
In a way, the aliens were important, going all “no one is truly dead” since we “live in multiple timelines” or something to that effect; but it was Billy who really caught my affections. He was not a strong protagonist, to some extent, not even one you would look up to, but I was rooting for him the whole way, and often felt a touch of empathy towards his calm but morbid thoughts.
“She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”
Well, I definitely don’t hate my mother, but this did make me think about how we’re brought into this world of really no choice of our own, and are by default, expected to love it. There’s really no other way. To hate it is to be, as Billy put it, ungrateful and weak.
As Billy’s fellow psych-ward inmate told his psychiatrists:
“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lines, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”
There’s only so much you can extol about the virtues of life. In the end, it’s really all about how lucky you are in the terms of health and finances isn’t it? We’d like to think that the world isn’t ruled by money, but the truth of the matter is, it is! I wouldn’t even be able to type this if I didn’t have the money to purchase this laptop, and any reader of this post must have a smartphone, laptop, or at least access to a laptop, which will all require money one way or another.And when you think of it that way, that life really revolves all around money, are there really that many virtues left of it to extol? Get money and you can live the life of your dreams. Get no money and…well.
“Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.”
I’d probably be too scared to approach that money tree, but it is a good analogy. When I think about it though…give me some Batman-grade body armor and grappling gear, and I will be making daily trips to that tree, stat!
In reference to that quote, Kilgore Trout, the ‘unsuccessful’ sci-fi author was also a stand-out character to me. His various sci-fi novel ideas, which are really just Vonnegut’s ideas, amused and intrigued me greatly. Most carried a cynical message: society’s lust for money is shown through the story of the money tree, and there was another story where some aliens captured a man and a woman and put them on display in a zoo. Inside the zoo, they set up a stock market simulation and told the earthlings that they have real money invested on earth, and the money was theirs to lose or keep depending on how they play the market. They then set up fictitious events to simulate market ups and downs, thus causing the man and woman to go nuts over the simulation. The real zinger was when they threw religion into the fray, coinciding prayer with market highs.
This got me thinking: we humans really are so influenced by money, that we’d probably turn religious or non-religious at the promise of money. I’m probably coming off as so blasphemous right now, but hypothetically if it was somehow true that by NOT praying you could earn twice as much than if you prayed…I think a lot of people would stop praying.
And y’know there was that novel he wrote about a robot who bombed people with jellied gasoline, but gets rejected by society due to the fact that he has halitosis.
“And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.”
There was one quote, which I really loved from the book, but it’s pretty long. I tried to shorten it to only the significant portions, but as I read through it again I really couldn’t bring myself to cut out any of it. I have sufficed with bolding the parts that really spoke to me.
“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”
Similar sentiments have lurked within my mind, but Vonnegut expressed it in writing so articulately. Does it come off a little anti-bourgeoisie though? I’m always worried of coming off as anti-bourgeoisie, because my society is bourgeoisie and I’m a no-good conformist.
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
Also can we talk about how lovely this quote is? I honestly didn’t know that it was from slaughterhouse-five! For everything to be just be sheer bliss, to live in the dream where nothing feels wrong anymore…this quote just puts it all so neatly. It’s nice to finally know the source.
Bonus point in the book from when Kilgore Trout was trying to convince his paperboy to continue the job by telling him that most millionaires were paperboys in their youth. The boy promptly responds:
“Yeah, but I bet they quit after a week, it’s such a royal screwing.”
This book is equal parts bizarre, tragic and beautiful. Definitely would recommend! Then again, I’m pretty late on the train aren’t I?