Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
When I took AP Language & Composition as a junior in high school, I had the best teacher ever. He fed us book after book, essay after essay, and, most importantly (for me, anyway), he handed us Slaughterhouse-Five. He was such a cool teacher that he even had “so it goes” tattooed on his arm, a tattoo that I’ve been imagining on myself for six years now. After reading Kurt Vonnegut’s magnum opus, I immediately went out and bought about six or seven other Vonnegut titles, proudly showed them off to my teacher, and devoured them so quickly that now, I’m hindsight, many of the stories have blended together in some kind of sci-fi/speculative fiction/philosophy smoothie. PS: that teacher is probably 80% of the reason I’m applying to graduate school for English.
Anyway, Slaughterhouse-Five has long meant the world to me. In a way, it was one moment of my literary awakening. Now, rereading it six years later, I’m reminded why.
Billy Pilgrim is a war veteran struck by PTSD, who’s memories are disjointed; he has effectively “come unstuck in time.” After being abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, stuck in a human zoo, and exposed to the meaning of time and death, he jumps around to images of his chaotic life. He is taken prisoner during the war, he survives the catastrophic Dresden bombing, he meets his wife and forms his family, he revisits the deaths of his peers and loved ones, and he, eventually, faces his own death, as well.
Vonnegut’s book is weird. It’s science-fiction. It’s anti-war. It’s philosophy. It’s historical fiction. It’s a memoir. It’s a metaphor.
The climactic event of the book – the Dresden bombing – is an experience taken straight from the author’s life. It is then twisted, expanded, and mutated into a story compete with aliens, time travel, and lots of death.
Vonnegut is insistent in his symbolism. The iconic, oft-repeated phrase “so it goes,” is a mantra to remember that death is inevitable, inherent, and infinite. Billy Pilgrim’s parting words drive this point home:
If you think death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of innocent men sent to war, of men seeking glory in violence, of children placed in the jaws of death for the triumph of their country. It is nonchalant in its tone toward tragedy. Vonnegut looks at death, and he shrugs. “So it goes,” and he invites us to shrugs with him.