Book: Slaughterhouse-Five - First published 1969
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007)
Connection with ABC-TV’s LOST: The official LOST website links the book to episode 405 (The Consultant). The episode has a resemblance to the “unstuck in time” theme. The protagonist in the book randomly experiences events in his life, not knowing what part of his life he will relive next.
Graham Greene called Kurt Vonnegut “one of the best living American writers” in a generation crammed full of future fiction hall of famers. Vonnegut, like all baby-boomers, was deeply (although most were unconsciously) affected by their parents’ experiences during the Great Depression and World War II and their own unearned prosperity and confusion of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The world was a scary place full of atomic bombs, communists, and threats of total annihilation with World War III. The world was coming unhinged. In the late ‘60s, baby boomers were rejecting the concrete modernism of the past and moving into the beatnik-hippie-post modern world with abandon.
Into this exciting and confusing brew came Kurt Vonnegut and his pen. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of his best, and definitely gives a snapshot–through the safety of fiction–of what life was like.
“Billy Pilgrim had come unstuck in time.”
The writing style takes the Faulkian “stream of consciousness” writing style to the next level with the main character, Billy Pilgrim, bouncing back and forth through time like a ping-pong ball. It is a wild and trippy ride that the reader cannot try and “figure out” but must simply give up and enjoy the carnival ride. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for days after you finish reading it and keeps revealing new and fascinating layers every time you read it.
The narrator of the story is a veteran who survives the bombing of
“Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me… ‘You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs!’
I nodded this was true.
‘But you’re not going to write that way are you.’
This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
‘I-I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Well I know,’ she said. ‘You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.’”
Remember–Vonnegut wrote this book in 1968 and it was published in ’69. Did he envision women all over the country screaming these lines at men swapping WWII while praying every night their babies wouldn’t be sent to
Chapters 1 & 10 are focused on the narrator, while chapters 2-8 focus on Billy Pilgrim and his modern odyssey. Billy’s journey through time is the literal acting out of a generation’s sense of fractured lives and fear of the future. Billy is an optometrist by trade after the war who claims he was abducted by aliens, taken to their planet, and shown all their knowledge about truth and religion.
Vonnegut had the genius gift of planting little gems of modern truth in his stories, attributing them to fictional times and places of the past, but unlike works like The Crucible which are overarching and complete allegories, Vonnegut slips his wisdom into the story in bite size pieces. Two of my favorites are from Slaughterhouse-Five.
One is attributed to a fictional playwright, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who tells the Germans: “It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor…Every other nation has folk traditions of me who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold . . . Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”
A commentary on RFK’s and Johnson’s War on Poverty? Maybe. So it goes.
The other is at the end of the book when Billy predicts his death at a conference in
Now, this may have been written in 1968 by a skinny writer with glasses, but every time I read those sentences I feel like I’m getting hit over the head with a celestial bat and it’s Jesus speaking to me . . . isn’t that something we have all perfected in the modern, suburban, white middle class? We teach people the only way to have dignity is to move up (whether consciously or unconsciously) and we protest and fear death as much as the early disciples precisely because we have not understood a word he said.
So it goes….