If I had to pick an author that I consistently love their books no matter how many I read, it would be Kurt Vonnegut. He takes on dark subjects (death, war, loneliness, etc.) and treats them with incredible humor and wit. His fiction, his short stories, and his essays are all equally great literature. But what we’re talking about today is #18 of the 100 greatest novels: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade.
This novel is a conglomeration of science fiction, semi-autobiographical storytelling, and wartime fiction. Well, here’s how Kurt Vonnegut opens the novel: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.”
Following Billy Pilgrim’s life, the novel focuses on three main events: Billy being a prisoner of war in and during the bombing of Dresden, Billy being abducted by aliens and taken to Tralfamadore, and Billy becoming outspoken about his abduction after living through a plane crash. The story is not told in chronological order because Billy becomes “unstuck” from time and jumps back and forth between different years and locations, never knowing at one point in his life will he appear next.
Here’s the hard part: why I love this novel. The attitude of the novel is more fatalistic and accepting of death and war than I am. Every time death, dying, or mortality comes up in the novel, Vonnegut uses the phrase “So it goes.” to lighten the weight of the issue and to move on to another subject. I used to love this phrase. This reading, I found it more depressing. But having read more of Vonnegut’s writing, especially his essays later in life, I know his strong anti-war attitude and his desire for something better in America. The fatalistic attitude doesn’t completely represent Vonnegut as a person. Also, I’m not a huge fan of science fiction. Even with aliens, abductions, and time travel, it’s not too overpowering here. The novel doesn’t read like a science fiction because Vonnegut treats the fantastic with as reserved an attitude as everything else.
Well, that wasn’t a very good paragraph about why I love this novel. Let me try again…
I like war novels. I like that it’s about the bombing in Dresden because us in America don’t hear about it very much. It wasn’t taught in any of my history classes. I like Vonnegut’s allusions to other novels, his own and other writers’. I like how he carries characters across numerous novels. I like the conversational tone of the writing, the short and simple phrases used. I like the humor, even in the darkest moments. I enjoy reading the stories disjointed as it is because it plays down the important moments and focuses on smaller, more intimate ones. Actually, the “climax” of the novel is given away in the first paragraph.
Anyways, if you haven’t, please read this book. It’s a quick read and oh so fulfilling. Let me finish with the maybe-Vonnegut narrator’s description of the novel that he gave his publisher:
“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”