“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

So It Goes...(Slaughterhouse Five-Vonnegut)

I just finished reading my first Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse Five. I have always been a little leery about reading Vonnegut, mainly because of what I heard about his writing style. Whenever his name was brought up, I imagined he was like others I've read from the latter half of the twentieth century, someone who was in the literary conversation of "the greats." It seemed though that no one could pin him down; some say he's science fiction, others find his style abhorrent. After a while I began to picture his style as something rather like Faulkner, who I tried to read a couple of times with no luck(though, I will try again.) I simply found Faulkner hard to follow, and assumed that I was just not in the right head space at the time. With all the varying opinions on Vonnegut, I just figured I could always come back to him (and Faulkner.) I had plenty of other books to read in the meantime.

I finally dove in...
On the cover of my edition of Slaughterhouse Five there is a blurb that touts a thundering moral statement that underlines everything else in the book. Unless that moral is "life goes on," I didn't see it. If that was the moral, I would not call it "thundering." Maybe in 1969 (two years before I was born, by the way) it would have been, but here and now in 2015 it seems a bit cliche.

Other blurbs inside the front cover talked of Vonnegut's satirist's view and his black humor as well as the science fiction leanings of the book. I can see how they could be construed as such, but my take on Billy Pilgrim's story was that of an old man, possibly with dementia or Alzheimer's looking back and remembering in tattered snatches the goings on of his own life, with some mis-remembered or unexplained gaps in his mind being filled in by the Tralfamadorian saga. Billy is an intriguing character, you get the feeling that he did not live his life rather, simply let life happen to him. He has two "love" interests in the book of seemingly polar opposites. In each case though, these women seem to be proffered to him, all be it in very different circumstances. None the less, he did not search them out or chase after them. This is a recurring theme in the life of Billy Pilgrim.

I found this to be a wonderful story, with a lot going on, but with all the jumping back and forth between time and setting, I never felt lost.Vonnegut gives the illusion of trying to lose you in the story but somehow you are always kept in the loop by the simple declarative writing. I found it interesting too, how the main character is Billy Pilgrim and at times you imagine him telling the story but in fact it is an unnamed narrator who rarely inserts himself into the story after the first chapter, which is used only to get the ball rolling. He is somewhat of an innocent bystander, much like our protagonist, Billy.

The back cover blurb said it best; "Splendid art... a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears." -Life



  1. Vonnegut is zany in a stealthful way.

  2. Thanks, Chris. This makes me want to go back and re-read some Vonnegut. The question of what is and what is not 'science fiction' is always interesting to me, and Vonnegut was really the first writer I encountered that made me ask that question.