Saturday, January 2, 2010

When He Traveled Time, For The Future of Mankind

Book10: "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

I always find it a difficult situation when a friend suggests something for me to enjoy because they so thoroughly enjoyed it themselves. It pressures me want to like it in exactly the same way they do, though that is highly improbable. That is the case I find myself in with Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five". It was on my to-read list due to Vonnegut's acclaim alone, but my good buddy sent it to me as a care package. In the book, he wrote, "Enjoy this masterpiece." Masterpiece. That is a lot of pressure.

The meat of "Slaughterhouse-Five" follows the eventful life of an American soldier named Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim is captured during World War II and ends up surviving the Dresden bombings and later goes on to become an optometrist, marry a fat woman named Valencia, survives a plane crash, and is kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians. And somewhere in all of this, he has become unstuck in time. As such, he unexpectedly moves through each of these events in his life at random, giving the story a non-linear chronology.

While it may seem that this would make the story confusing and convoluted, it actually worked really well. Every scene feels like a small window of Billy's life. You are not listening to a biography of man, but rather listening to the man tell you his stories (but it's a third person narrative). He tells you what parts he wants whenever he feels like they need to be said, with no regard for a consistent time line. It's an ironic twist because Vonnegut actually has characters in the story who live on that idea: the alien Tralfamadorians. As it's explained, the Tralfamadorians are aliens who can see in the fourth dimension. This ability causes some misunderstandings between Billy and his captors, but the Tralfamadorians explain their view to Billy. As humans, our lives seem to be a series of choices, a cause and the following effect, and at the end of life, a person ceases to exist. For Tralfamadorians, because they can see in the fourth dimension and therefore see all moments at exactly the same time, there is essentially no choice in life; everything is predestined. Everything has already happened, has always happened that way, and will always happen that way. Therefore beings do not cease to exist to the Tralfamadorians; they are still alive because they continue to exist in other moments, the moments we consider the past. As we follow Billy through his jumps to different points of his life, we see that the narrator references this logic more and more since Billy has already seen what comes next (i.e. Edgar Derby's death, Billy's own death). This logic also seems to be the backbone of Vonnegut's most famous phrase, "So it goes."

"So it goes" is a phrase used heavily throughout the book, always following any discussion or any sort of mentioning of death (or rather, the end of life). It's a bit like "That's what she said" (I realize "Slaughterhouse-Five" pre-dates "The Office (US)" by something like forty years) in that the statement provides a bit of humor to the text. However, while "TWSS" offers an obvious, semi-toilet humor to "The Office", "So it goes" is a more subtle and dark humor for "Slaughterhouse". Death is heavily mentioned in "Slaughterhouse", but instead of being the typically morbid, solemn, melancholy affair it is in real life, Vonnegut gives it a tongue-in-cheek quality by following every mention of death with "So it goes." It's difficult to explain, but it's like someone shrugging both shoulders with a smirk and saying, "Oh well! That's that!" It's a tone used throughout the novel, even without mention of death or Vonnegut's phrase.

I'm wary to apply the "masterpiece" designation of the book, but it is incredibly well-written (call that an understatement if you like). Though I have trouble explaining the dark yet humorous tone of the book, it's what I enjoyed most. It smacks of a small hint of Shakespeare; tragedies laced with ironic humor. It's a different kind of subtle humor that I don't think I see much of anymore. But alas.

...So it goes. (I had to say it.)

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