I consider myself a reasonably well-read person. I love to read, and have done so from an early age. I recall checking out books in the school library to read at leisure during my pre-teen years (boys were way more important after that usually), and I remember clearly going every week to the “bookmobile” that stopped at my old grade school and from which I secured book after book to read during the long summer months.
Somewhere all the line, I focused, by no intent that I can discern, on English and European authors. I’ve read most all the usual things, Dickens and Flaubert, Tolstoy and so forth. And at some point, I think I concluded that American authors were “too new” and spoke of times that I had no interest in.
Well, my goal this year is to focus on American authors, not exclusively, but certainly as a major concern. And rather arbitrarily, I chose Kurt Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse-Five. I’m glad I did.
Now, S-5 was written in I believe 1969 (or at least published at that point) a time that is important no doubt in understanding the book. But my point is, that everything that can be said about it, has been, you may be sure.
What I can say, is that I love Vonnegut’s writing style. It is simply so readable. Someone said (WordPress now gives you little literary quotes when you post), that easy reading was hard writing. I take that to be true, and if so, Vonnegut is a master.
What is more to the point, is that he lays down so many memorable sentences that cause you to stop, back up, and read again. There are quite a number of them, and if you search the Internet you will find many examples of “major quotes” from SlaughterHouse-Five.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that Vonnegut was giving a great example of what PTSD is like. The events of Dresden cannot be forgotten. They will intrude here and there, throughout the balance of one’s life. They are memories never put to bed. Such is true of those who suffer from PTSD, they are haunted by events played again and again, year after year, and sadly, decade after decade.
Most assuredly this is an anti-war book, written of course as we became mired in that awful thing called Vietnam that haunts so many of us, who now inhabit middle age. The hellish war that could not be won, could not be left, and continued to eat up young men and women on both sides for no good reason that most could articulate. Domino theories be damned.
The introduction of aliens and time travel and the fluidity of time help to set the state for the movement in and out of events in the book. This is no straight forward story. It flops in and out of war and alien planets, of childhood and adulthood, from sickness into health and back again. And through it all you see a resignation that nothing can be controlled, nothing can be held on to, all is seen from so many angles and times that nothing is identifiable except to the person themselves.
War kills, not in the physical way, but in the mental and emotional way that is often not observable to the casual observer. It kills the heart just as surely as it blows the body apart with bombs.
One of my favorite quotes was:
Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
How true this is. Enter the home of an elderly person and look about at knickknacks aplenty on shelves and tables. Ask a question or two, and you will begin a long verbal trip of “we got that little Empire State Building statue when we went to New York City in 1959, when Bobbie was just eight. He took it to school that fall for ‘show and tell'”. And so it goes. (another of Vonnegut’s famous lines) Do we not too, try to define our lives by the “things” we have acquired, as if they explain the life we have led.
“Why me?” “That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?” “Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
Billy Pilgrim passes for the “lead” character. He survived Dresden. He was an optometrist. He was abducted by aliens. Life washed by him, around him, but not through him. He barely registered. He had thoroughly incorporated that there is no why.
Vonnegut is a masterful storyteller and well worth the reading. I know I shall read more.
A note: The second part of my plan this year is to read as many of these classics “online”. There are now dozens of free book sites, and many where you can download to kindles and other readers of that sort. Some are better than others. I will give you a link to read this book on-line, but do google “(title of the book) and free online book” and roam around to find the format that you like best.
You can read SlaughterHouse-Five online here.
- Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (idiotyouth.wordpress.com)