30 Day Book Challenge: Day Two

Least favorite book: Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

A quick summary of the novel’s plot. The novel is an anachronistic (I despise the term “nonlinear,” don’t even get me started) narrative of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WW-II veteran that has become “lost in time.” Billy was a POW in Dresden during the firebombing, and much of the story is based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as a soldier. He is then kidnapped by aliens, referred to as Tralfamadorians, who exhibit him with a porn star in a kind of zoo. The aliens experience life in four dimensions, so have entire knowledge of their life and death. Billy seems to acquire the same ability but isn’t able to control it as the aliens do, so the narration jumps around different points in his life accordingly. It’s established early on that he is murdered, so the book basically goes back in forth in time, all the while the reader knows eventually the protagonist will die. Now, before I continue I should establish that I read this book years ago when I was still a teenager and perhaps I would have a different opinion now. And I may have muffed up some the plot’s details. But let’s move on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely read worse novels that Slaughterhouse Five, but Vonnegut’s most celebrated book has always stuck with me as a book I especially hated. It stands out for me for a few reasons. Firstly, not only does it have a stellar reputation, but a lot of people whose opinion I respect love this book. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had the same reaction to this book as I did. I’ve been disappointed by famous books before – On The Road, Vile Bodies, Down To The Dirt, to name a few – but I’ve usually found others who share my opinion. Not so with Slaughterhouse Five. This book really is universally acclaimed and I can’t for the life of me understand why. Usually when I don’t “get” celebrated works of art, I blame myself and reapply my focus, but I found this book irredeemable.

Secondly, I was disappointed because this book should’ve been right up my alley. I love fiction inspired by war, especially the two World Wars (when I picked up Slaughterhouse Five, I’d just finished reading Catch-22 and a friend recommended it to me based on how much I loved Heller’s book), and I love Sci-Fi. I thought it’d be a happy marriage. It was a hateful marriage. Mostly I think I’m opposed to and confused by Vonnegut’s philosophy. Here’s a discussion between Vonnegut and Joyce Carol Oates:

This is obviously a snippet that’s been taken out of context, which may be unfair to both participants, and I’m not sure how seriously we should take Vonnegut’s misogynist retort, but this really sums up what I took away from him and his book. Aside from being misanthropic, Vonnegut strikes me as a fatalist and a not-so closeted nihilist. The Tralfamadorians cannot change their destiny, but they can chose which parts of their lives they can focus upon. This is pretty much a hackneyed version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, but I digress. Vonnegut also repeats the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity/to accept the things I cannot change;/courage to change the things I can;/and wisdom to know the difference.” Vonnegut also claims that writing an anti-War novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel, suggesting wars are  an inevitable part of human existence. But he also calls attention to the atrocities of war: the Dresden bombing for example. One is tempted to conclude that while wars are unavoidable, we should take measures to avoid senseless tragedies like Dresden, the holocaust, etc. But if we lack free will, what’s the point?

Some suggest that Slaughterhouse Five satirizes the idea of free will, but there is clearly a degree of choice insofar as the aliens can choose what time they focus upon. Moreover, as Oates suggests, there are other aspects of life and history whether we are determined or not, so why roll around in the mud? Why not forget about wars and just think about eating, shitting, and fucking? Fatalism and nihilism always strike me as the ramblings of someone who has given up on the struggle of life and has thrown in the towel. Personally, I don’t fall on either side of the debate because I think it’s a false dichotomy. Throwing yourself upon either horn of the argument is just a way of giving up.

But all that highfalutin stuff aside, I think the book’s critical failure is its tedious style. Slaughterhouse Five is a lean read, but it nonetheless manages to repeat the phrase “so it goes” over 100 times, if memory serves me correct. Vonnegut is trying to enforce the absurdity of human existence, and I get that, I really do, but there’s fine line between suggestion through repetition and heavy handed didacticism. Vonnegut crosses that line. Some compare the book to Greek tragedies because you feel helpless as you watch the protagonist inexorably sail towards to his doom, but I disagree. I simply had no sympathy for Billy Pilgrim and couldn’t care less about what happened to him, given the novel’s tone. Like I said, it’s like rolling around in the mud. What’s the point?

Although, I should probably thank Vonnegut for inspiring one of LOST’s best episodes, “The Constant.” Maybe one day I’ll try rereading Slaughterhouse Five and see if I come up with something different, but I really have no desire to do so as of writing this.




~ by braddunne on June 14, 2011.

5 Responses to “30 Day Book Challenge: Day Two”

  1. Wow, I must say I am surprised to see named as anyone’s worst book – it is one of my favourites! I understand that the writing style can be laboured at times, and of course I respect your opinion – but I must say I disagree.

    You’re an excellent writer and make your points well. If I were to argue a brief defense of this brilliant novel, I must say that it is extremely moving and unique. It was a great inspiration to me to look into more postmodern fiction and I’m glad I did so. I think the Tralfamadorians were an amazing creation and Billy’s stocism was an interesting way to present a character in such bizarre circumstances.

    I found the extended “so it goes” metaphor utterly compelling as a way to describe the absurdities of war and the tragedy (or lack of) in human death. And how about the sequence about Billy watching a war movie backwards (burying the shells deep underground where no-one can find them?) or “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt?” Surely such images speak for themselves!

    • The part about watching the movie backwards is a great image, but the “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” phrase always seemed rather empty and numbing. Billy wasn’t an utterly hateful character, but I’d hardly call him stoic in the virtuous sense–he was so detached and dispassionate, I found it impossible to sympathize with him. But, then, if you got something positive out the book, I can’t deny that. I’m certainly glad someone did!

    • As I said, I’ve read worse books than Slaughterhouse Five, but I had such a surprisingly adverse reaction to it that it’s always stuck with me. I chose it because I know a lot of people love and I was hoping to stir some kind of discussion so I may better understand the book. I think it’s just simply not my kind of literature.

  2. Huzzah! You have at least one companion in your hatred of this book. In the Book Meme I did last month, I listed it as my most overrated book>/a>. Like you, I think I get what Vonnegut’s saying. But he can’t help but speak from his philosophical worldview, and I think it’s a pretty pathetic one. Relativistic, and like you said veering towards nihilism (at least in this book).

    Anyway, I’m pleased to finally find someone else who couldn’t stand Slaughterhouse-Five either, and for some really good reasons.

  3. Whoops, apologies on the botched html code there.

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