This is a long time coming. I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five over the weekend of Thanksgiving. The climactic setting, which is the namesake of the novel, and the time of year I read the novel made me think about the many turkeys pushed through slaughterhouses in order to meet the demands of American consumers hungry for a traditional turkey dinner.
I know. What a buzzkill, right?
Vonnegut’s slaughterhouse number five was a building in Dresden, Germany that was dedicated to the slaughter of livestock, presumably for German consumers. In one of the many points of irony in the novel, the military prisoners who huddled deep below this building of death were among the very few survivors of the Dresden bombings in World War II.
Here are a few thoughts about the story that I’ve been chewing on:
- The protagonist moves through major episodes in his life without seeming to become emotionally involved with them. Because he’s “unstuck in time” he jumps from one period in time to another, not knowing where he’ll land in the story of his life. But wherever he lands, he knows what he’s supposed to do, who will be there, and what the outcome will be. It’s almost as if he passively watches a movie from within the skin of the protagonist, unable to change the script. Was this how Vonnegut felt about life, specifically his life?
- The happiest the protagonist would ever be is in the aftermath of the Dresden bombings when he’s exhausted and lying on a wagon looking up at the sky. That moment, in the shadow of tragically monumental destruction and exhaustion, is the happiest moment in his life. It was happier than when he got married, had a child, achieved career and financial success, or had an affair of fantastic proportion with a movie starlet. To me, it demonstrates the idea of deep happiness as a release valve and counterbalance to extreme trauma. It reminds me of the sentiment that it is only in experiencing great pain and suffering that we can experience great joy.
- The story world is one in which fate is decided and unavoidable. It makes me curious to know if the protagonist was compelled to live his life as scripted out of a perceived obligation or due to some invisible force making anything else impossible. This same phenomenon was a foundation in Vonnegut’s novel, “The Sirens of Titan.” I would like to see what might happen if a character did something completely out of character to test the waters. I suppose that might make it an entirely different book though.
Like the other two Vonnegut novels I’ve read, I appreciated reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Very few novels stay with me and keep me thinking about their stories and ideas the way Vonnegut’s do.