I’ve been chomping down on books lately, trying to get some off my list. I didn’t always make the best use of time during my formative years, and missed reading several pieces of literature I should have digested eons ago.
One was the 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I’ve read other works by Vonnegut, but never got back around to this treasure after neglecting it in high school.
Though not a dense work, the concept behind it, his character development, pacing and Vonnegut’s ability to keep the character string intact as he moved the protagonist through time and space is amazing.
This is a war book on the surface, and quite graphically deals with the inevitable destruction that comes with violent conflict, whether its participants are willing or not.
And then there are the space aliens. That is something not found in many war novels.
The story centers on Billy Pilgrim, a fatalistic optometrist, who has become unstuck in time. Meaning instead of going about his life in the usual linear fashion, day-by-day, incrementally, Billy sometimes leaves the present and jumps forward and backward uncontrollably, changing time and place.
Pilgrim was unremarkable.
He was an awkward child, born in 1922, in Ilium, New York. Weak and funny looking, he didn’t transition well into a soldier.
Billy is thrown into war in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge and quickly taken prison behind German lines.
As a POW, living in Slaughterhouse Five, Pilgrim witnesses the allied firebombing of Dresden, where 130,000 people were incinerated. As a prisoner, Billy is forced to excavate the corpses from the rubble.
This is one of many examples that bring into question the idea of “Free Will.”
Billy returns to his hometown of Ilium, where he finishes optometry school. He has a nervous breakdown and commits himself to a VA hospital where shock treatments are administered, and he is introduced to the science fiction writing of Kilgore Trout.
Billy then gets married and has a prosperous life, which on the surface looks grand and normal, but underneath his reality is fragile at best. He doesn’t fit in, and all the trappings of success mean nothing.
The night after his daughter’s wedding, as he later reveals on a radio talk show, Billy is kidnapped by two-foot-high aliens from Tralfamadore, who resemble upside-down toilet plungers. They take him back to their planet in a flying saucer, where he is placed into a form of zoo for extraterrestrial curiosities. Inside this transparent geodesic structure he is paired with sultry movie actress Montana Wildhack, so they may be observed mating.
Tralfamadorians exist in the fourth dimension, where all life occurs simultaneously. If a person dies, they only die in that one particular moment. They are alive and fine in other moments, and Tralfamadorians can elect to live in other moments in time, thus avoiding any true ending.
Once returned to Earth, Billy escapes some near-death experiences, while others around him are not so lucky. This doesn’t disturb Pilgrim, as he has already foreseen his demise, and thus has some control over it, and can pass with dignity, which is something he lacked in most other aspects of his life.
Pilgrim already had a tenuous grip on reality, but after going to war and witnessing horrific destruction, Billy becomes mentally unstable.
It’s questionable whether Pilgrim was really abducted by aliens and forced to live in a zoo with a movie star. No doubt it’s fun to take Vonnegut’s writing literally and enjoy the ride he provides.
The more likely scenario is that some of the things Pilgrim witnessed were so disturbing that he came unhinged, and imagining that he was abducted by aliens was a way to explain what had happened to himself, and serves as a coping mechanism.
There are several instances in the book where mundane events trigger a memory from the war for Pilgrim, and he goes time tripping. If he had to deal with those war flashbacks in their entirety it might prove too much for his fragile mental state, but when one allows himself to say, “Hey I was abducted by aliens, nothing I can do about that,” it gives Pilgrim an out.
Regardless it is brilliant writing by Vonnegut, to put these dual realities together so well that it’s questionable whether what Pilgrim sees is fact or a grand hallucination.
Vonnegut frames these changes in short chapters, or episodic vignettes, that disorient a reader, as I was ripped away to travel along with Pilgrim and try to grasp where he had been transported to in the past or future.
Vonnegut allows himself to serve as the book’s narrator, which provides an avenue for him to unburden some of his own war experiences. Occasionally he makes brief cameos in the story, but those are mainly interludes to get Pilgrim moving forward once again.
There are a variety of other characters in this book, of varying significance, but the novel centers so much on Pilgrim, they really only come into play in terms of moving Billy’s story along.
Overall this is a condemnation of war. Much of Billy’s problems emanate from him having to hide inside a meat locker in order to survive the Dresden bombing. He goes back, mentally, to that meat locker often.
It matters little what happens to Pilgrim later in life. The question of why he was allowed to survive the bombing and what he had to do to survive the bombing, took an everlasting toll on Billy’s life.
This theme in particular is compelling considering the number of young men and women currently returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have seen unforgettable, horrible events, and suffered life-altering injuries, then are returned to America, where few can comprehend their sacrifices.
That Billy was an optometrist by trade I assume is a sly reference by Vonnegut that somebody needs to correct our conscious vision about the costs and value of war as a means to an end.
Pilgrim never seems to correct his own vision, but does find comfort in his acceptance of the Tralfamadorians’ view of life in the fourth dimension – that all moments in time exist simultaneously and repeat themselves endlessly. This way Billy always knows what is going to happen because it already has happened and will continue to happen the same way.
This feeds into the argument that “Free Will” is but an illusion. Sure we have choices but those choices lead to the same conclusions, whether we want them to or not. It’s a question of whether individuals have a pre-determined fate.
This in turn leads to one of the great literary transition techniques ever, as Vonnegut employs the mundane offering, “So It Goes,” to recognize a thought passage, time travel or story interlude, which has concluded and now we are moving on to something new.
It also serves as a commentary and critique from the narrator in three words as to the pointlessness and inevitability that whatever is being addressed cannot be avoided, particularly concerning death.
To say there is no free will seems extreme. Absolutely there are certain people doomed to a premature unfortunate ending. They will not triumph over their adversity. But choices can be made; sacrifices endured, hard work endeavored, resulting in multiple pathways.
Doors open and doors close – choose wisely and beware.
Always remember that war comes cheap to those who wage it. We saw that under President George W. Bush most recently, as he sent men and women to die so he could appear more serious to powerful men like his father, and make a lot of money for his cronies.
Now we see all this death and dismemberment from drone-based warfare. At least before there was accountability among those on the lines; modern evolution has delivered a robot that buzzes past disguised as death, which drops its payload without compromise.
“So it goes.”