1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 43: Slaughterhouse Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death), by Kurt Vonnegut

When I was in my late-teens and early twenties, I went on a Vonnegut kick and tore through just about every book he wrote and loved them. Its been over tens years since I last read a Vonnegut book (though I do sometimes return to some of the short stories from Welcome To The Monkey House), so I figured I’d pick up a copy of the first book of his I read: Slaughterhouse Five. I remember having loved it when I first read, and hoped rediscovering it would be as much fun. It wasn’t.

 

The novel is an amalgamation of science fiction and autobiography. Vonnegut defers to his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the infamous firebombing that was more destructive than either of the atomic bombs dropped at the end of WWII. And it rolls this personal experience in with an anthropological view of war and death and all the other scares and beautifications that accompany humanity. It follows Billy Pilgrim as he becomes unstuck in time and jumps back and forth through different events in his life, living them over and over again in no particular order. His life as an optometrist, his life as a POW, his life as a guest on an alien planet, copulating with a famous Hollywood starlet, and all strung along with the refrain: so it goes. There are ideas that are appealing in the novel, and some that are not. It would be nice to know that after death with get to revisit moments in our lives. There are moments in my life that I consider beautiful and that I would love to relive, and others that I know were painful that I would like to be present for, if nothing else, to offer some sort of comfort to my past selves. There are also concepts about judgement and the lack of it, which I also find comforting, but there are ideas presented which speak to culpability or rather, the lack of culpability which I am not as comfortable with. With are products of our environments, environments that we did not create and that we are not responsible for, and so it could be argued that some of the choices we make are not entirely of our own doing, but there are others that I believe are very much a reflection of who we are. Everything in this world is co-authored, I agree, but completely taking away ownership is a bit too extreme for me, so when Billy Pilgrim adopts the idea that we are not responsible for what happens as each moment happens as it must, it seems to me to be skipping the debate of context, and deferring to the concept of fate. This I am uncomfortable with, though it could be argued that Vonnegut is speaking to something else. That he is speaking to context, that there is ultimately only one way which things can turn out and that is the way we choose them to, but it reeks to much of the preordained to me.

When I had first read the book I remember very much enjoying the refrain: so it goes. It harkens to the Greek chorus and seemed to pull the narrative along, and it was one of those inside jokes that only readers of Vonnegut would get when you referenced it in your daily life. But since the time I first read the book I have earned an Honours Degree in English Literature and History and my education has very much influenced how I see writing and how I read. This experience has coloured me in a certain way, perhaps I see things more clearly, perhaps I have more blinders on than I did before, but regardless I seem to have enjoyed the book less. In having participated in creative writing workshops, I see what I perceive as flaws. In having read authors whom Vonnegut has influenced, authors like Chuck Palahniuk (who has relied heavily on the “chorus” or “refrain”, so much so that it is a crutch in his writing, but has also used it so much that he has perfected it), I have seen refrains used more effectively. The refrains used in Slaughterhouse Five seem excessive, and misplaced and misused and annoy and break up the narrative, rather than helping to pull it along.

 

 

Slaughterhouse Five is still a book I see as worth reading, but I am not as high on it as I once was. Vonnegut is still a giant and one of the best contemporary authors, but there is a magic that is present in his work when you are young, and that magic doesn’t seem to have spoken to me as an adult.

 

 

Having read this book now and coming away with the impressions I have, I can’t help but feel like I am missing something, like I have lost something that I didn’t know I had and I am not sure I want, but something I miss nonetheless. Perhaps I will have a chance to revisit it after I die.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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