V is for Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse- Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, is Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth novel, according to Wikipedia. It’s very short, barely a couple of hundred pages, but as is the case with most short books, they take just as long to read as the longer ones.

I’m not sure if that’s because I read them more slowly as there is less urgency, or perhaps shorter books manage to pack more depth in as all of the excess has been trimmed. Either way, I look forward to reading more Vonnegut in the near future.

Slaughterhouse-Five opens with an enigmatic narrator, on a quest to write a book about his time in the war. It is within the first couple of chapters that the reason for the sub-title of the book emerges, as the narrator appeases his war buddy’s wife by promising not to glorify war and therefore not make it an attractive option for children. That was a bit of a long winded explanation, but read the book – Vonnegut explains all in a couple of succinct sentences.

I’ve tried to read another Kurt Vonnegut before – Mother’s Night – but didn’t manage to get past the first chapter or two, as it was a bit disjointed for me and I lacked the determination, basically. Reading Slaughterhouse- Five, I found the first chapter or two similarly disjointed, but after getting through those the rest of the book was plain sailing. It made me think that Vonnegut deliberately writes his first chapter as nigh on impossibly dense, as a test to separate the dedicated readers from the fair-weather fans. Or maybe I just got used to the style.

Once the narrator has decided on what to write about in his war novel, the narrative shifts focus to Billy Pilgrim, a man who appears to be ill-equipped for every situation. He is unstuck in time, and finds himself (mind/body/soul) zipping forwards and backwards through his lifetime. The episodes are divided between his time in wartime Europe, his pedestrian post war marriage and his alien abduction to the planet Trafalmadore. It’s not as confusing or as strange as it sounds, and I think that’s part of Vonnegut’s gift as a writer – that he can make literally out of this world scenes seem normal.

His name reflects his journey through life, in that he is always a pilgrim, whether in his American home, where he feels emotionally detached, or in the concentration camps. I suppose there’s some jingoistic humour from Vonnegut, as the word is so tied up with Thanksgiving.

Billy is taught by the Trafalmadorians, who can see in four dimensions, that everything is pre-destined. They can see every moment, all at once and as such, there is no free will. Quite early on in the novel the reader is told that Billy will die. Every anecdote which involves death, from a house plant to thousands of people, is suffixed with the Trafalmadorian saying of “So it goes”. It becomes a chant, a refrain throughout the book so that when Billy dies, it brings comfort as we know that he exists in other moments.  Thanks to wikipedia, I now know that The Daily Show paid tribute to Vonnegut on his death in 2007 with a frame before the closing credits including that famous phrase.

Once this Book Challenge is over, I’d like to read more Kurt Vonnegut. Which do you recommend?

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