Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Hello, minions. Your favorite book reviewer is back from a months-long cocaine-and-Bellini binge on a tropical island you’ve never heard of. My point being, it’s been a while, and I have a hell of a hangover. But I’m back, once again, to tell you why you’re stupid for reading The Hunger Games. Blah, blah, rip-off, blah, blah, I hate perfect present tense writing, blah blah, this dystopia is laughably shallow.
You want dystopia? You want to feel like the universe is going to collapse in on you and the rest of humanity? More importantly: you want to laugh while you curl up into the fetal position? Then let me suggest a little Kurt Vonnegut to cleanse your palate.
Honestly, there’s not much to say about him that hasn’t already been said. He blends sci-fi and satire in a way that doesn’t make me hate sci-fi—a genre that often blends terrible writing with terrible storytelling. (I shudder at the thought.) The written universe he has created is absurd. He himself resembles an alien, his wide-eyed stare penetrating your (rather shallow) soul. His fan-base comprises mainly know-it-all teenagers and first semester poli-sci majors.
About a year ago, this unnamed sanctimonious douche, deep in the annals of the pseudo-intellectual Internet, wrote that, though he had never actually read Vonnegut, he assumed those works were for people who wanted to seem smarter than they actually are. His assessment stuck with me and gave me nightmares on the regular. True, Vonnegut’s style is, on the surface, accessible, but satire stops most people dead in their tracks. (See: morons who believe that The Onion is a real news source.)
So, yeah, true, it is easy to take his funnily fatalistic works and say: The man hates war. He hates capitalism. That Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war manifesto. Duh, dummies. But taking this book to simply be a communist, pacifist work of art ignores the greater philosophical message: that humans are wasteful, useless bags of meat.
Yes, the apocalypse that we are bringing upon ourselves is a prevalent theme throughout almost all of his writing. But, ugh, if I hear one more 18-year-old proselytizing about a Tralfamadorian utopia free of war or poverty or worries about the future, I will kick a baby.
Let me backtrack and explain. Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1969. It’s a look at World War II’s almost complete destruction of innocence with a sci-fi twist. Before PTSD was a diagnosable disorder, veterans were just weird. Fucked up.
Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, was a POW during the firebombing of Dresden, an assault on the German city that killed nearly every individual—citizens most certainly included—in the perimeter. Billy survived and, as a result, began to spontaneously travel back and forth through time. We’re never really sure if it’s simply a coping mechanism—because it begins around the time of the bombing—or if he genuinely jumps forward to his wife’s death and backwards to his own birth.
Vonnegut throws an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore into the mix. They kidnap Billy and display him in their zoo, along with B-movie actress Montana Wildhack. Vonnegut weaves a nonlinear narrative that creates a universe eerily similar to ours—were it not for the time traveling and aliens. See, that is what is so beautiful about Vonnegut’s writing. He has the power to convince his readers that this could be our absurd, violent world.
Yet Vonnegut subverts the usual anthropocentric sci-fi aliens-among-us trope. You know the one I’m talking about. Yes, it points out that we’re not alone, but elevates our self-importance to the point that this enlightened alien race sought us out to share universal truths with us. (Or the opposite: our power and intelligence are such threats to the universal order that we must be destroyed.)
Yes, the Tralfamadorians do share with Billy the true nature of the universe, but not because he needs to share the message with the whole race. Remember: he’s merely an exhibit in a zoo. He’s about as important to the Tralfamadorians as a warthog is to the San Diego Zoo. It’s kind of like telling your dog about why you hate Stacy so much. You don’t really think he understands; you just need to vent.
Billy asks, “Why me?” when he is kidnapped. (And who hasn’t cursed Cthulhu, lightning cracking in the background, and lamented this?) The Tralfamadorians bitch slap him with the truth: “That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is” (76). This alien race reminds us of the perpetual childishness that lies beneath our self-importance.
Behind this exchange is the notion that, no matter the violence found within this race of walking bags of flesh, each moment is beautiful. War is terrible, yes, but, numbskulls, that is only scratching the surface. War sucks the life out of us and, while we should strive to make things easier for one another, as one of the Tralfamadorians tells Billy, “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said” (142).
We’re too stupid to handle our own self-awareness. The horrors of war aren’t going to change, try as your dreadlocked compatriots might. Instead, we should strive to “produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects” (88). So, again, yes, we should all stop being violent dicks to one another.
But behind the moral message so obviously scrawled across these pages is the fatalism for which Vonnegut is so well known. While we should do this, doesn’t mean we will. So just shut that hippie up, get your Vonnegut on, and prepare to laugh helplessly at the sad and incurable stupidity of the human race.
5 bananas out of 5.
Funny, sad, and perfect