I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut on a whim. The only thing I knew about it was that Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose really liked it. (Tell me I’m not the only one who remembers that scene?) So, I went into it with no idea of what to expect, and I kind of liked it that way. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t research the book prior to reading. I didn’t read reviews or check the Goodreads rating. I did what people did before the internet and simply read it.
Now, here is the tough part. I have no idea how to say what I want to say about this book. Literally, no idea. Reading it felt powerful, but it’s not a feeling I can accurately describe. I knew I was reading something worthy of being read, but why? I have no idea. Maybe its Vonnegut’s shocking use of language or the cut and dry way he discusses violent death as though it is normal, because in war, I guess it is. Maybe it’s because I live in a country where wars are what happen on other continents across the seas. Where bombs and gunfire are only in the movies. Where dead bodies littering the streets is something I see only in my worst nightmares. Kurt Vonnegut brought those things from lands far away into my home and confronted me with them in a way I’d never been confronted before. Maybe that was it. I can’t be sure, but I am sure about one thing: I’m better for having read it.
It’s not rare that I say that about a book, because, when you love literature the way I do and read it often, you stumble upon a lot of books that leave you with something you didn’t have before. A small picture of humanity of beauty of pain that changes the way you experience a previously unknown corner of the world. However, though it may not be rare, it isn’t something I say lightly. Walking the winding, PTSD riddled life of Billy Pilgrim, from the bombing of Dresden to his honeymoon suite with his new wife to his time on the alien spaceship of Tralfamadore, felt like a privilege. A deeply personal glimpse into a mental illness that, after learning of the horrors he experienced, felt less and less crazy and more and more rational.
PTSD is how I interpreted the book, at least. The way certain sights, sounds, or emotions could send him from one time to another seamlessly. As I said before, I didn’t do any research, I didn’t have any idea what the book would be about, and so I didn’t go into it as I do with most classics, knowing the themes, the common interpretations, the motifs. Instead, I sussed them out for myself, making up my own mind, and writing copious amounts of notes in the margins. It felt freeing, really, being able to break away from what I’m sure is a full, illustrious literary history. Being able to pick it up as if it were the day after it had been published and I’d simply found the cover intriguing.
There are a million things to say about this book, but I don’t have time to write them all and I’m sure you don’t have time to read them. So, I’m going to stick to the highlights. For me, walking away from this book, the most powerful thought is that Billy Pilgrim saw so many horrors, so much brutality and bloodshed and pain on earth, he had to leave on an alien spacecraft to make sense of it. Sure, it can be assumed his time on Tralfamadore is a confusing fiction playing out in Billy’s head, but that doesn’t make it any less real (did anyone else hear the Harry Potter quote when they read that?). He sought solace from a pain he couldn’t explain and no one else could understand, so he created another race, an alien mentor who could explain to Billy that, “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They tell him that a corpse is just “in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” Leading to Billy saying “So it goes” after even the most grisly deaths occur. (Fun fact: he says “So it goes” 106 times in the 215 page novel.)
Maybe now that I’m finished and I’ve written this review I’ll go back and read what literature professors and critics had to say about it. Maybe I’ll discover that my interpretation was completely off base. Though, on the other hand, maybe I won’t. Isn’t that kind of the beauty of literature—of any art, really—that it can mean one thing for one person and something completely different for someone else?
Either way, I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this book! Comment down below if you’ve read it and tell me why you think Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time” and how much of his story you think is fact or fiction.
If it isn’t already obvious, I highly recommend this book.