During my latest grad school residency, a few of my fellow authors and I decided to take a stroll through Pittsburgh’s selection of used book stores. Not having any I’d frequented back home, I was intrigued by the concept—and of course, more than willing to look around for new books.
Now, as many of my friends already know, for someone who loves writing and novels as much as I do, I’ve really read very little that most people would consider of great worth. Sure, I’ve read Harry Potter and Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wicked, and even more “adult” books like The Awakening and 1984 and The Great Divorce. But I’m a genre writer, and a lot of the genre books I grew up reading, many of my peers did not.
However. When we walked into a shop and my dear friend Denise realized I had not yet read Slaughterhouse Five…well. That simply wasn’t acceptable. I walked out with a copy of the book and instructions to read it. Read. It. Thank you.
So I did.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from Vonnegut’s story, but what I got…wasn’t it. My father is a long-standing fan of the author; one of his favorite memories is of a time he got an opportunity to be part of an interview with him, and ask him a question Vonnegut considered a “good question.” (My father will be quick to note that despite saying it was a good question, he did not—of course—answer it.) So I had high hopes walking into the book, simply because I have not often, if ever, been led astray in terms of a book or novelist from my father’s advice.
At first glance, the narrative style reminded me a great deal of JD Salinger’s work in Catcher in the Rye. The narrator has difficulty staying on track, they veer off into sub-plots easily, and they have a certain disdain for the world around them. That being said, Billy Pilgrim has more reason to not follow a proper time arc: he’s come unstuck in time. And abducted by aliens. And has seen his own death and back again. And as the book says at one point, “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
It’s sentences like that one which kept dragging me back into the novel, despite getting lost in the narrative style. Vonnegut has a way with words that even if you have no idea what’s happening, you get to a sentence and just have to stop and marvel at it. I got to one part and started laughing, given the veracity of the statement still, despite the fact that the book was written in 1969: “It was only a little after eight o’clock, so all the shows [on the television] were about silliness and murder. So it goes.” If that’s not an accurate depiction of prime-time television, I don’t know what is.
It is an interesting tale, because it takes one of my major criticisms about some other classic novels, and turns it on its head. The book itself says “There are no almost characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” And it’s true: Billy Pilgrim is noted throughout the whole book as being uninspiring and common. None of his fellow soldiers are great war heroes; no one does anything more spectacular than dying. But it is more than just a slice of life, because no one could argue that Billy Pilgrim’s life is common. He is fascinating in his acceptance of the absurd, and his ability to simply accept what is happening to him—from the bombing of Dresden to the abduction by the Tralfamadorians. But in the end, little happens, and nothing is truly resolved…because how could it be, when Billy—and the readers—have already seen the end of his story, as we view it? He continues on, in the moments when he is alive, and does not in the moments after his death. There is no way to logically summarize the end of a book like that, because it does not end…at an ending.
So it goes.
I’m pleased to have finally read the book, and I’m not sad to own a copy. I don’t know that I will read it again, because honestly, it makes my head hurt trying to follow it. But it’s a good book, and it will sit comfortably on my bookshelf, and I am glad to be done with it.
So it goes, indeed.