A commonly banned book, Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade is a powerful piece of classic American literature. Believe it or not, this was my first time reading a Vonnegut novel. Sometimes, I reflect back on my public school English curriculum, and I wonder what my teachers were thinking. There are so many classic authors I have never read. But then again, there are a lot of classic authors…
Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific American author who had a perchance for the darkly comic in his writing. His writing quickly became classics of American counterculture and he was an idol to the student population of the 1960s and 70s. Vonnegut gave public voice, in a poetic way, to the passions and beliefs of that generation. His books, published in flimsy paperback, were found everywhere and spoke the treatise of a generation. Vonnegut almost single-handedly created a new genre: that of what we now know as modern pop-fiction.
In Vonnegut’s memoir, Palm Sunday, he graded all his novels on the basis of comparing himself to himself:
Only two books received A-plus grades– and one was Slaughterhouse Five. Part memoir, part war story, part science fiction novel– this American classic is hard to speak directly to. This novel is about so many things, so many slippery concepts and ideas it’s hard to address things. But I’ll try.
Slaughterhouse Five is about war. Our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim wants to talk about The War. In this case, World War II. He lived it, he experienced it. And it’s time for him to sit down and write about those experiences before they are lost forever. Billy expresses feeling like a fragile leaf in a storm; constantly buffeted and beaten until he is ready to give up and do anything. And so it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five is about the mind. Billy was in Dresden during the 1945 fire-bombing of the city. He miraculously survived, but at a price. Our protagonist suffers from severe PTSD. But he doesn’t see that as a failing. He is experiencing his life has it is intended, one day a time, one experience at a time. It just might not be in the traditional sense of time. And so it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five is about life. The shock of PTSD, and a separate plane crash has Billy sliding in and out of his own timeline. One moment he is attending Optometry school, the next he is in Dresden, the next he is giving a speech in the States, the next he is on Tralfamador. And so it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five is about Aliens. Yeah, I bet you didn’t see that coming. Space aliens! Billy was abducted and had a lifetime of experiences on the alien planet Tralfamador.
A planet run by a species who experiences life so differently they have different senses. These aliens shared their experiences with Billy. And in such, he knows that all things happen exactly as they do, that they will always happen that way, and they will never happen any other way. In other words, all of time is experienced at once. And so it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five is about what can and can’t be controlled. The phrase, “so it goes” appears over and over again in Billy’s story. Most often this phrase is a way for Billy to gloss over death. Anytime someone dies, “so it goes” replaces any description of death. It’s a way to cope with grief, with loss, with death, without ever acknowledging it directly. “And so it goes” is an acknowledgment of the complete powerlessness of humanity to control anything worthwhile. Instead of trying to change the past, just let it be. And so it goes.
The ideas captured within the pages of this masterpiece of Vonnegut transgress the pages. You don’t need to always understand what is happening in Billy’s life. What matters is the story of humanity. This book is a reminder that war happens. Love happens. Life happens. Death happens. Heck, aliens happen. Control what you can, but don’t stress with the rest. Share your story, and make it a happy one.