A rare re-read on my mission to read some of the greatest books ever written, I’ve been a fan of Slaughterhouse-Five since first finding it many years ago. Appropriately, one thing about the book has lodged timelessly in my head. On mentioning the title to an old friend of mine, they replied with such an odd comment it’s the first thing I think about when Slaughterhouse-Five or Kurt Vonnegut is mentioned.
“I don’t like books with numbers in the title”, he said.
I didn’t ask why at the time, just accepted it. I figure it would be bizarre to press the matter now, probably a decade later.
Though I can’t think of too many examples (The Secret Seven?), the presence of a number doesn’t seem to have impacted the success of Slaughterhouse-Five. Since publication in 1969, it’s been a mainstay of critics ‘best of’ lists, praised for its unusual time-hopping form, anti-war message and crisp writing.
Despite this, it’s also courted controversy with several attempts at censorship in the USA based on profanity, sexuality and unorthodox themes. Though these seem outdated now, it was banned at a Missouri high school as recently as 2011.
The novel follows, in a sense, the life of Billy Pilgrim. Experiencing time in a non-linear fashion thanks to being abducted by aliens who perceive all time at once, Billy recounts his memories of surviving the Dresden firebombing, outliving his wife, walking away from a plane crash and his children growing up.
Key amongst all his experiences, due to his time on planet Tralfamadore, is a quiet acceptance of life events. A new-born fatalist, Billy responds to life, death and everything between with “so it goes”. Vonnegut uses this to puncture the futility of all things – war most obviously, but also smaller battles throughout our lives. Though it should feel depressing, releasing our illusion of control also releases us from worry, stress and the fear of judgement.
Despite all this – a randomly time-skipping narrative and heavy themes of free-will – the novel is a breezy read. Much like another of my favourites, The Great Gatsby, the pages speed past thanks to incredibly clear writing. Vonnegut’s style is short sentences, repetition and an almost-factual approach to storytelling. You get the sense throughout that, as the opening sentence claims “All of this happened, more or less.”
To skip from beginnings to endings, I think Salmon Rushdie explains the emotions at the novel’s end perfectly in his 2019 New Yorker essay:
“This cheerfulness in spite of everything is Vonnegut’s characteristic note. It may be, as I’ve suggested, a cheerfulness beneath which much pain is hidden. But it is cheerfulness nonetheless. Vonnegut’s prose, even when dealing with the dreadful, whistles a happy tune.”
It is this balancing of the dark side of life with featherlight prose that makes Slaughterhouse-Five so enduring.
What else is it that makes the novel last? Despite spanning a defined set of years and events in history such as the firebombing of Dresden and the Vietnam War, it’s a timeless instruction on how to cope with the world happening around us.
Every generation has its moments. Mine might begin with September 11th and the war on terror. It might then slip back to the millennium celebrations. It would certainly drag many chapters from the pandemic of 2020 and 2021. Our lives can either be defined by what happens around us, or we can push on and listen for a little sweet birdsong at the end.