Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.” – Billy Pilgrim
I came upon this gem of a book in Cooperstown, New York. We were on a trip to Niagara Falls when my uncle decided to make an unscheduled stop to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame since he is a baseball fan and there lies my problem for I am not a fan of the sport. Instead of going inside the Hall of Fame, I decided to wander the streets of this small town and check out the establishments. The second establishment that I entered was a store that sells baseball memorabilia including books about the players and about the sport itself. However, in one small corner, there are non-baseball books that are not for sale and what caught my eye at the moment was the extremely appealing cover of Slaughterhouse Five with its vibrant red background; the bright yellow skull-and-crossbones on the foreground; and the appealing typography. I picked it up, bought it, went back to the car, and started reading although not exactly in that order.
Slaughterhouse Five is the story that begins with a autobiographic first chapter that “…happened, more or less.” (pg.1) about the creation of the book. This chapter is more of an introduction or a preface rather than a chapter of the book itself and explains the thought processes of Kurt Vonnegut when he was formulating the book.
Then it pivots to the main story which was about Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes “unstuck in time” which means that he no longer has a linear perspective on time. He experiences past and future events in a disorderly fashion and sometimes he experiences such events repetitively. Thus, the story follows a nonlinear narrative as the reader jumps back and forth in the events of Billy Pilgrim’s life. We are given a narrative that gives us a glimpse of Billy’s childhood, of his time in the army, of his postwar suburban life, of his old age, and of his life with the Tralfamadorians, who are a race of aliens that view time the same way that Billy views it and he learns from these aliens the same way that the aliens learned from him. Through the Tralfamadorians, Billy discovers that free will is a human illusion and that everything happens because they must. As the Tralfamadorian that Billy is talking to said:
“I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
It is this fatalistic view of destiny that the book expounds upon. Because Billy’s life is already mapped out since he has experienced everything that has happened at that will happen, he leads a dreary existence as he waits for what he will experience next which he already knows. Life is only a happy experience if it is filled with unknowns and since Billy already knows everything that will happen, he then leads his life as just a sequence of nonlinear events and nothing more.
Billy’s death is even made to look as such a minor occurrence because Billy has already seen how he dies and he dismisses it as just an annoyance. He counters that he is not worried about death because, after the event, he will just go back in time to one of his other memories. The book has not made it clear if Billy is indeed a time-traveler or if he was just mentally incapacitated by his experience during the war. War being a most ugly thing and which causes severe mental trauma to its participants.
Vonnegut also expounded on the destructiveness of war in this book but relegates it as a futile endeavor by saying that:
“…writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book.”
Which means that both attempts are senseless because both war and glaciers are things that cannot be stopped and controlled. It is the seemingly unstoppable nature of war that leads Vonnegut into writing that humans have no free will because, if we do have free will, why do we let destructive and horrible events like war happen. This human irrationality appears in one of the events within the book where a man is executed for stealing while the destruction caused by the firebombing of Dresden is all around them. Amidst all the burning rubble, the mangled bodies, and the bleak landscape, the men in the story found time to execute one man for stealing a teacup.
The fatalism within the book can indeed make a man think of all the senselessness that pervades in our world. This book is not a warning nor it is a lesson. It is just an account of how war and destruction can affect the most basic of human life and how it can change such a man forever by making him believe that he is a time-traveler so that he can escape war’s destruction and death. So it goes.