the Dell mass market of Vonnegut's seminal book: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death

  • Author:  Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  (1922  –  2007)
  • Rank:  #31
  • Published:  1969
  • Publisher:  Delacorte
  • Pages:  215
  • First Line:  “All this happened, more or less.”
  • Last Line:  “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’ “
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #18; All-TIME List; Nebula nominee; Hugo nominee
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  1972 (*** – dir. George Roy Hill)
  • First Read:  September, 1994

The Novel:  “So it goes.”  That is the constant refrain in Slaughterhouse-Five, the best novel from the man who inspired several generations of college students to become writers.  There are those who criticize it for these very words, saying that Vonnegut is simply allowing history to wash across us all with nothing with passivity to get us through.  But to someone who had seen what Vonnegut had, who spent over twenty years trying to find a way to put it into book form and finally found a way that not only allowed him to deal with his history, but to write a book that has been fiercely loved by fans for over 40 years, this was a way of coping.

Think of the scene late in the book, after Dresden has been fire-bombed.  “Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.  There were to be no moon men at all.”  The moon men, are of course, because the surface of Dresden has been utterly destroyed – made as desolate as the face of the moon.  What happens to Billy Pilgrim here, and to Vonnegut in reality, walking across the face of a devastated Dresden is that by some grace they were allowed to survive where so few others had.  And when there is no sense to be made of that – how the prisoners held in the basement of a slaughterhouse are the ones who make it out alive, sometimes “so it goes” is the only way of making any sense of it.

He could have used another phrase.  At the beginning he mentions a postcard from a taxi driver on which is written “I hope that we’ll meet again in a world of peace and freedom in the taxi cab if the accident will.”  That phrase, which Vonnegut repeats “if the accident will” could easily have been the recurring phrase throughout the book.  It is not simply a question of passivity – but that things happen in the world far out of our control and sometimes that is how it goes.

This novel is so many things in one.  First of all, it is an anti-war book, one of the best ever written, linked at heart with All Quiet on the Western Front.  Vonnegut does what he promises in the opening chapter; he reminds us that those who went off the fight in the war were children, who often did just what they could to survive and that this war will forever be lingering there in their memory.  Second, it is a science-fiction novel, and a first rate one at that, one of the few in the genre that is widely respected and taught.  Third, it is a comment on American society in general (especially the line “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”).

In doing all of these things, it often finds itself banned.  Indeed, recently one school supposedly un-banned it, which would be a nice response to Banned Books Week.  But, in fact, they only allowed it to be place in a restricted section of the library and can only be checked out by an adult.  Clearly those in charge have failed to understand a key line in the book.  “People aren’t supposed to look back.  I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”  Those who ban the book for what they find offensive – language, doubts about the world, flat, humorous, honest statements about the world we live in – they are looking back and they are failing to learn from what they have seen.

So it goes.