I am in love with the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. Let that be my disclaimer.
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five for an Ethics & Literature class offered by the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University. Having never heard of Vonnegut before, I had no idea what I was in for. My previous reading interests consisted of The Lord of the Rings and spy novels.
Slaughterhouse-Five was my gateway drug to harder concepts like war, morality, pain, and patriotism.
I once suggested Slaughterhouse-Five to a friend who had never read Vonnegut. He read it, but didn’t think as much of it as I. He told me that he found the book a bit hopeless, depressing. I couldn’t disagree with that. Vonnegut wrote from his experience as a World War II prisoner-of-war who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden. He prefaces the book with a promise to a war buddy’s wife that he wouldn’t glorify the war. He lived up to that promise.
If you haven’t read Slaughterhouse-Five, read it. I can’t promise that it will be an uplifting book, but it is excellently written and shows an author who put himself onto the pages, sometimes literally, in a way that will stick with you. Plus, it was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, so I’m not alone in my convictions.
I’m not going to bother with an in-depth synopsis of the book, because I fully expect each of you to read it for yourself, but if you need something to go on for the rest of this post, here’s the one-sentence version for you: We follow the out-of-order life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII POW who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden (sound familiar?) and was abducted by aliens who taught him the true nature of time, free will, and acceptance; an anti-war novel.
4 Things Writers Can Learn from Slaughterhouse-Five
1. Form & Function | When you first start reading Slaughterhouse, you notice that the book is not laid out chronologically. Rather, it is broken up into little moments. It isn’t until the fifth chapter that you read this:
Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out–in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.
“Exactly,” said the voice.
“They are telegrams?”
“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message–describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments when seen all at one time.”
Vonnegut wrote in the style of the Tralfamadorians, a device that he invented and integrated in order that we might receive something beautiful when seen altogether. There is no real suspense, as he tells you in the first chapter exactly how the book is going to end. It’s certainly a different approach to novel.
2. Author-Driven Narrative | Usually, books fall into one of two categories as far as what is driving the narrative: plot or character. Vonnegut, I would argue, does neither. In plot-driven narratives, the action of the story is what draws the reader in and keeps them reading. In character-driven narratives, the plot comes second to the development of the characters, creating realistic, fleshed-out characters that readers love. Most novels try to balance these two things. Slaughterhouse-Five breaks up the plot into non-chronological order, and we get to the know the characters over the course of the novel, but the reason we keep turning the page is because the author has laid out the book in a very specific way. We follow the author’s lead more than the plot or the character.
3. Writing from Experience | Vonnegut was there. In fact, he even makes a few appearances in the book. This is my favorite, but its a little graphic, so feel free to skip it if you are faint of heart or stomach:
Billy looked inside the latrine. The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over.
An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, “There they go, there they go.” He meant his brains.
That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
The first chapter opens with a discussion between Vonnegut and a buddy from the war. The last chapter shows them both returning to Dresden in real life.
While I wouldn’t recommend this device for every novel, it is one of my favorite things about Vonnegut’s books. His platform, his authority comes from his experience. He just can’t stay out of his own books. Either he inserts himself by name, or he uses his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. In Slaughterhouse, he does both.
4. Symbolism | Slaughterhouse-Five is rich with symbolism, but rather than point out every symbol, I’ll just talk about one.
Vonnegut could have named his character anything, but he chose the last name of Pilgrim. Pilgrims are travelers. Billy happens to be a traveler through time. But the symbolism goes deeper.
Back in the days when people only owned two books, they had a Bible and a copy of John Bunyon’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Pilgrim’s Progress shows a man on the road to salvation who undergoes trial and hardship in order to get to the Celestial city. It is one of the earliest forms of allegory to describe the Christian life and the path to Heaven.
Vonnegut’s name choice puts his own Pilgrim in direct contrast to Bunyon’s, as Billy Pilgrim undergoes trial and hardship and is rewarded, not with Heaven, but with nothingness.
Billy is speaking before a capacity audience in a baseball park, which is covered by a geodesic dome. The flag of the country is behind him. It is a Hereford bull on a field of green. Billy predicts his own death within an hour. He laughs about it, invites the crowd to laugh with him. “It is high time I was dead,” he says. “Many years ago,” he said, “a certain man promised to have me killed. He is an old man now, living not far from here. He has read all the publicity associated with my appearance in your fair city. He is insane. Tonight he will keep his promise.”
There are protests from the crowd.
Billy Pilgrim rebukes them. “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.” Now he closes his speech as he closes every speech–with these words: “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”
There are police around him as he leaves the stage. They are there to protect him from the crush of popularity. No threats on his life have been made since 1945. The police offer to stay with him. They are floridly willing to stand in a circle around him all night, with their zap guns drawn.
“No, no,” says Billy serenely. “It is time for you to go home to your wives and children, and it is time for me to be dead for a little while–and then live again.” At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross-hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at him from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.
So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.
Vonnegut’s worldview appears through his symbolic name choice, drawing contrast and refuting the Christian faith in favor of Humanism. So it goes.
Using symbolism is an effective tool to portray complex thoughts or to allow a deeper interpretation of your work.
If you haven’t read it yet, read the book with symbolism in mind and see what you come up with. If you have read it, read it again.
And as always, thanks for reading my blog.