Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

It’s easy to understand why Vonnegut it so revered; his writing is accessible to a wide audience yet manages to explore the human psyche and life’s big questions in a voice that isn’t the least bit pretentious.  His books are short because they’re concise.  He gets right down to it, having little tolerance for flowery descriptions and literary navel-gazing fluff.  (Early in his writing career, he was commissioned by Sports Illustrated to do a piece about a horse race where a horse jumped a rail and terrorized the infield at a local track.  After staring at his desk for a long time, he left the building.  In his typewriter, this message was found: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”)

Slaughterhouse-Five, his most famous novel, reads as if it were just written.  (The same can be said about any of his books, really.)  This book, in particular, is about the bombings in Dresden.  It’s also about aliens.  The main character, Billy, has come “unstuck in time” and as a result, his experiences unfold in a non-linear order.  It jumps around from his time in the war, his time after the war, and that fuzzy gray area in between where he was captured by Tralfamadorians, a group of aliens that stuck him in a zoo.  The story is anti-war and really tells it like it is.  At one point in the story, after being captured, Billy is placed in a cattle car with many others that have been captured by the Germans.  This is a description of the conditions, “To the guards who walked up and down outside, each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators, too. In went water and loaves of blackbread and sausage and cheese, and out came shit and piss and language.”

For his humanistic standpoint, Vonnegut always faced harsh critics.  However, his word will live on, much longer than anything said by his airhead detractors.  Some people just weren’t meant to understand works of poignant, yet comical genius.  So it goes.

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4 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. It’s definitely one of my favorites. Once you finish it, I highly recommend Breakfast of Champions. The plot is a little less structured but it delves into Vonnegut’s psyche a little bit more.

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