Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of many different things. The main character (I suppose we'll call him that) is Billy Pilgrim, and the story chronicles his life from his adolescence to his death and back again. Billy Pilgrim travels through time, so we see snapshots of various points in time, some during the second world war (as a prisoner of war and then in Dresden during the bombing), some in outer space (after he's been abducted by aliens and transported to the planet Tralfamadore to live in a zoo exhibit), some in hospitals where Billy may or may not be going crazy, and some in Ilium, New York, during his time as an optometrist. The story begins before Billy enters the scene; the narrator during this part is ostensibly Vonnegut himself. He tells (satirically, of course) the story of how he came to write his book on the bombing of Dresden. He travels back in time himself (not quite as literally as Billy) and returns to Dresden with an old war buddy of his. He discusses the verity of the events in the novel, asserting that they are, for the most part, all quite true. The whole book is written with a constant stream of actually funny and funny-because-it-hurts kinds of moments. Vonnegut deals with some very dark territory in world history; when he compares the bombing in Dresden with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden has almost as many casualties as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Billy Pilgrim has a few friends along the way - on Tralfamadore, he mates with Montana Wildhack (amusingly I had to go back in the book to check that I'd gotten her last name right, and I hadn't - I called her Montana Wildsack. heh. heh.), and at home in Ilium, he's married to Valencia - and most of his family thinks he's totally batshit crazy because he's constantly traveling in time (although I think only his mind travels, not his physical body, though he has a body in other dimensions). He befriends a weird science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, after meeting him in Ilium. When Billy is first in the war (before he becomes a POW) he travels with a man named Roland Weary, who very disgruntedly (whatever, I want it to be a word so it is) and begrudgingly (aha! I stumbled on a real word!) drags Billy along through the battle field, despite Billy's constant stream of "Leave me behind"'s. The book ends just after Dresden has been bombed and Billy (along with the other POWs) is set free and helps begin to clean up the city after the disaster.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Excuse me if that plot summary was rather frenetic and scatter-brained. The book, after all, is written that way. That's not to say that it doesn't have a great point or climax (in fact it has several) but just that they don't necessarily come in a traditional order within the "accepted" literary structure.

I really enjoyed this book. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it when I was a teenager - some of the humor is quite dark, and some of the jokes are pretty raunchy for a Bible belt teenager - so I'm glad that I read it now and not then, and that I get to make up my mind about it as an adult reader.

I admit this book also read like something of a novella after War and Peace and Les Misérables. A mere 275 pages? Practically a tone poem! Here are my thoughts on the book, in no particular order and in fact, perhaps in an intentionally different order than I experienced them:

- Vonnegut has one of those narrator voices that just sticks to you like glue. Maybe it helps that the beginning of the book feels like he's telling it directly to you (which he sort of is) or maybe it's more of a contemporary narrative voice (although Joyce has a similar way about him and he's definitely before Vonnegut) but I just felt like it wasn't even really Billy pulling me along in the tale, it was the nameless, unidentified narrator.

- "So it goes" is the catchphrase of this novel. It generally follows something completely horrific or tragic. I guess this is the satire - treating the horrific as the banal - although I admit sometimes this type of humor escapes me. I circled it in my book every time. I'm not sure why. I knew it was coming, and I knew what it was supposed to mean, but I circled it each time anyway. Maybe to give each seemingly unimportant moment more meaning. Maybe because I like circling things.

- Vonnegut's narration in the beginning reminded me very much of Stephen King's style of narrating in his book On Writing. I haven't read any other Stephen King novels (I do think one is on this list) but I loved loved loved On Writing when I read it as a senior in high school. I wonder if King was a Vonnegut fan. One of the funniest moments in this intro is when Vonnegut says he laid out the story of Slaughterhouse-Five with his daughter's crayons on a piece of wallpaper. "One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle." In some ways, I found this mini-novel beginning to be even more enjoyable than the rest of the story. I'm not sure why Vonnegut chose to start it off that way - maybe to help the reader to understand that while his protagonist was comical in some ways, and the story was funny in some ways, the situation was real and the events were serious and had a disturbing impact. I don't know. Sometimes I don't like to get too into the why, and I just like to enjoy what is.

- Vonnegut likes to play with time. Billy's life is told to us in fragments, but even the beginning of the book skips and stops and starts. I love this line - "And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

- In case you were wondering, the name of the book comes from the place Billy Pilgrim and the other prisoners are eventually taken to. They are supposed to do hard labor in the old slaughterhouse, and they're told to memorize their address in case they get lost or need to find their way back. Slaughterhouse-Five.

- Billy is innocent and confused, bewildered by war and his surroundings; he represents the iconic child-soldier Vonnegut wants us to realize was actually fighting World War II. I don't know whether Vonnegut was that child-soldier, too, or if he just found himself surrounded by them, but I think it's definitely still true today that the men and women we allow to fight and die for us are so much younger than we think they are.

- Vonnegut describes Dresden post-bombing as the "face of the moon". I can imagine feeling that the wreckage didn't resemble anything previously witnessed on earth.

- Billy's dad tells him to keep the shortened form of his name into adulthood because (1) it will help people to remember him and (2) it will make him seem slightly magical, since there aren't any other grown Billys around. ("My dad's Billw. I'm billwy!")
- There are many more magnificent moments (like my alliteration?) in this book, and I want you to discover them for yourself (if you haven't already) so I won't keep detailing them here. I will share a few of my favorite sentences, though.

- "Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans."
- "There was an old typewriter in the rumpus room."
- "Barbara celebrated frustration by clapping her hands."
- "It jazzed and jangled Billy's skin without thawing the ice in the marrow of his long bones."
- "A moment went by, and then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause."

This book felt a bit like a Glee-style mash-up. Here are the books I felt either fed into or out of this book:

-The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (which I have started 3 times and still haven't finished)
-The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (which has a similarly off-putting time-jumping aspect to it)
-Ulysses by James Joyce (which basically defined the "stream of consciousness" idea)
-Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (a later satirical war book that I also felt I understood about 70% as well as I wanted to)

Well, I'm off to the antebellum deep south for a much earlier war during my last few days before I'm inundated with policy lessons and statistics graphs. Time for "Lost with the Hurricane." Or was it, "Away with the Breeze"? Oh, you know what I mean.

No comments:

Post a Comment