Audience Assumptions: None
This is a bit of an odd one. I’ve recently started trying to get through some classic 1900s fictional literature that most people would be familiar with through popular culture or their high school English classes, but which for whatever reason I never read. Among these are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye, but I started reading (well, technically listening to) Slaughterhouse Five not because I thought it was a classic I should really get to know, but because it sounded interesting. I had probably heard of it in passing plenty of times before, but like with most novels, if I can’t match a name to a plot summary, my chances of remember it are slim. Hearing a more recent description of the book piqued my interest. An anti-war novel about time-travel and aliens? Yes, please. I was expecting it to be absurd with a dark edge of comedy, something akin to Catch-22.
Instead, what I got was one of the most honestly depressing books I’ve ever read, about trauma, the struggle of dealing with human atrocities, and one person’s efforts to find a reason to keep going in a banal existence full of apathy for the dead and the living alike. It’s the sort of book that makes me just a little angry at my English teachers for not making me read it sooner.
Part One: Hat is a Crybaby
This is the only book I have read since I was six that nearly made me cry. As a six-year old, I only liked to read books about animals, and I was an over-emotional train wreck with more attachment to my toys than to other human beings, so as a general rule of thumb, I discount most of my opinions from then. I have never, that I can recall, been so emotionally invested in a book that I’ve come close to tears at a sad scene or the death of a beloved character. Films can do it for me, shows can do it for me, and I’ve even genuinely cried while playing video games a few times. But the narrower pacing and distanced format of books make it difficult for me to become as invested in them.
I love books, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a cynic. I can follow the story and immerse myself in its details, but factors conspire to brew a perfect storm of small problems in most of the books I encounter that keep me from feeling satisfied at the end of them. Occasionally I’ll reach a section of a novel and have to put it down for a moment to synthesize because the passage I’ve just read is so rich. Sometimes I’ll re-read it. Those moments are rare, however, and most often come at interesting but unnecessary parts of the story. Heavy material, like loss and pain, are difficult to depict with words alone. It’s possible, but just like it’s possible to create a moving and unique piece of music, not all artists are up to the challenge. The most poignant moments in literary fiction I’ve come across tend to be excerpts from novellas and short stories, because pace is so critical in perceiving emotion in stories. In fully-fledged novels, however, even though the story has time to build up investment in characters, when it comes to killing them off, I’ve often seen the moment pass without impact or else linger like a moist sponge reveling in its own misery. Hitting the right notes means little if the timing is disjointed.
Slaughterhouse Five did not make me cry, but it came pretty damn close. It’s a sad book at times, but I’ve read sadder. It’s not hard to find a story with more hopelessness or tragedy, even though this book is in part about both. The book’s particularly grim scenes, like the deaths of characters or moments when characters become aware of tragedies elsewhere, give me the same hollow feeling I get when I think of dead people whose deaths I’ve never quite recovered from. They’re not what got to me, though. The closest I came to crying while reading this book was when the main character of the fictionalized portion of the story, Billy Pilgrim, and a fellow soldier are captured by German Soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge, both of them exhausted and delusional and captured by soldiers who are basically in the same situation as them, just on the other side. The desolate atmosphere leading up to this scene, especially the fervent desperation of the other American solder coming up with this absurd fairy-tale about being a war hero in a blatant black-hat-white-hat scenario, which in the context of the rest of the story makes this person look so naïve that it nearly dooms him to his horrible death – that sort of incomprehensible desolation, that’s what got to me.
I can’t always pin down my own emotions in relation to a story, as much as I try, especially when they come as gut reactions. I think that this scene, however, impacted me so powerfully because it’s a simple reflection of a truth I agree with, but often try to forget: that life is meaningless, that death is ultimately inconsequential and inevitable, and that there’s nothing you can do about it but go on living until even your awareness of the futility of existence is gone. It isn’t an especially happy philosophy to live by, and the only way to get around it is through the fantasy of temporary elation. To me, this book embodies that idea. And it does so with time-travelling aliens.
Part Two: The Problems with Free Will and Time Travel
Fantasy is an important part of living, largely because it distracts us from that inevitable end we can never hope to escape otherwise. The author of the book even confesses at the beginning that he cannot really address the horrors he experienced in Dresden with a sober eye, and instead can only deliver the pain of that experience, or some modicum thereof, through the eyes of a fabricated character based on a dead man. The aliens and time-travel can clearly be seen as allegory for the treatment that Billy Pilgrim, and by extension the author himself, received at the hands of the Germans, and the time-travel is comparable to the flashbacks many who have lived through trauma experience.
But none of that’s really necessary, is it? While we can interpret the book in a literal sense with all of the fantastical elements as disguised copies to true, or literarily true, events, such an interpretation is applicable to any work of fiction with fantastical elements. The magic in Harry Potter is wishful escapism for a child who lacks familial intimacy. The Force is a stand-in for God as a symbol of hope on the weaker side of a war. The talking animals represent figures of the revolution, in which Mickey Mouse is emblematic of Walt Disney and his Capitalist agenda. We know this already; a literal interpretation nonetheless does not erase the fantasy’s presence. The more interesting question than, “What does the fantasy represent?” is, “Why is the fantasy necessary to tell the story in the first place?”
Through the lens of science fiction, the main character and the author in Slaughterhouse Five explore ideas about time, death, free will, the lack thereof, pleasure, pain, moments in a person’s life, futility, and scopes that view the world with such distance that even the end of the universe seems mundane yet simultaneously revel in the smallest accomplishments. Time is really just a tool for the story to progress, allowing the narrative to dance around topics of importance such as the bombing of Dresden, while also providing a means to compare events in the future with those in the past. The past events are harrowing and dark, seemingly endless, but the future events promise that Billy gets out okay and that he has much to look forward to in his life after the war. There’s also a darker twist, of course, as the time-jumping events can move either way, and the horrors of the past continue to dog the future version of Billy long after the war is over.
Crucially, for a book that can be considered in part to have science fiction elements, the time-travel all occurs without any ability to really affect things in that moment. From the way the story is told, Billy can remember and thus respond to events that happen to him in the future, but none of it changes his trajectory. He can jump through time at will on occasion, but the things he says when he does so are set in stone, with no measure of free will allowed to him. This gives the character a lack of agency, something most writers will tell you to avoid, but the complete lack of free will is important as it relates to the morose atmosphere of the novel and perhaps its most persistent theme: death.
Part Three: Death (So It Goes)
Each time death is mentioned or implied, whether it is the death of a person, an animal, or some abstract thing that can’t even really die, the author writes “so it goes,” an allusion to the worldview expressed by the aliens in the story. The constant repetition of this phrase varies from pretentious to ridiculous to irritating, but more than anything else it lends to the ever-present air of decay in the story.
I think it’s necessary that each death gets pointed out in this way, because it ensures that the final end of anything, from a person’s life to an immaterial concept, is marked. In this way, the phrase “so it goes” is almost a gravestone for each character and thing in the book. Each character only gets it once, the first time their death is written in the story definitively. While the phrase in some ways ensures that each death is memorable, in a story in which many people die, and often, that the phrase is always the same also ensures that each death is the same. This is the core of what the book is trying to express when the characters die – that death is unimportant and utterly important simultaneously. More than that, the death of any one character is just part of a single, drawn-out end, that all of the characters and creatures and things, even the universe itself, all have, in a sense, the same death.
The book is not especially interested in depicting the story of any given person and de-emphasizes individuality – that Billy is the only person in the world with the ability to travel back in time is completely irrelevant to the narrative. Billy doesn’t care, and the author doesn’t either. The science fiction aspects of the story are a means to rationalize humanity, and the broader existence of everything, as part of a single, dispersed whole. Billy wants to share his experiences with humanity, but ultimately can’t, and that’s where the source of tragedy in the book comes from.
The bombing of Dresden is seen as a success despite the tremendous loss of life because from the American point of view, they’re winners. The author doesn’t ignore the atrocities committed by the Nazis or opposition to anti-war sentiments addressed in the wake of the bombing. However, because the book offers such a broad view of existence, the context of the war’s atrocities feel demystified by comparison. The novel offers a means of examining the events of World War II with an emptiness that belittles those who claim a sort of patriotic or moral duty to justify their actions, while also not providing any direct opposition to these same claims. It’s not a comforting point of view – it lacks any of the finality or judgement we’ve come to expect regarding emotionally charged issues, and it’s distinctly not something anyone would aspire to feel.
At the end of the novel, Billy is confronted by a man who was involved in ordering the strike, who initially tries to pretend that Billy never witnessed the horrors, and who, when he does accept Billy’s account, claims that it was necessary. Billy silently disagrees, but he doesn’t contradict the man. Instead, he goes on living his ideal fantasy life, content with a lie because there’s nothing he can do about it.
Billy’s story is not a template for how people should deal with trauma and tragedy. Throughout the story, Billy has been a mildly unpleasant, uninspiring character who by design lacks initiative and much motivation of his own. His story is just one of how people try to deal with their trauma, whether it’s effective or healthy. In fact, the book often seems to want to point out that Billy’s solution is a distinctly bad one. It presents apathy as the dire consequence of horror and pain, more of an observation than a solution to any problem. However, finding the solution to a problem first requires understanding the problem itself.
Main Plot: 7