[feeling a little unstuck? that might be because I’ve written on this novel before: God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut. In some circles, I’m known for talking about Vonnegut a lot, so you can also check out my review of one of the author’s weirdest works Slapstick, which Vonnegut himself graded a D, and my paper on Cat’s Cradle published in the Terse Journal]
It ends with drastic acceleration as the protagonist, imagining beyond the film he has just seen, presuming that “Hitler turned into a baby” (Vonnegut 75), swiftly followed by all of humanity moving in reverse and decreasing by number until all that remained were “two perfect people named Adam and Eve” (75). It begins with Billy Pilgrim drinking a flat bottle of champagne and watching television. I open this review with the ending because in it I can find an effect. So could the story’s author.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a short novel, written in the sparse and witty—but emotional—prose that Vonnegut became known for. I could spend many pages discussing this entire novel. However, I’m only going to focus only on the first few pages of chapter four, for its effective use of simple language, and its ability to make ordinarily mundane occurrences hold weight and importance.
Vonnegut creates the vivid impression of scene and mood through select images and details. Vonnegut finds new ways to say ordinary things. The champagne isn’t flat, it’s “dead” (73) (this is followed by the customary “so it goes” (73) that follows every mention of death throughout the novel). Readers understand that the scene takes place late at night because Vonnegut gives us the lighting by noting Billy’s feet appeared “ivory and blue” (72). So we know both that it is night, and that the moon coming through the window is the only source of light. We know how Billy’s kitchen where the scene takes place is because the champagne bottle “doesn’t make a pop” (73) when opened. Vonnegut uses original language to make such short descriptions seem new again, colouring in his protagonist’s world and giving some indication of his isolation.
The scene that follows is my favourite use of science fiction to elevate a view. Billy watches a documentary on the second world war but becomes “slightly unstuck in time” (73). While the novel is full of time travel, this moment becomes unique, since Billy doesn’t physically travel, but only watches the film backwards. For once, the reader is given respite from the devastation of the firebombing of Dresden, the novels main event.
Vonnegut instills a tragic relief as the reader and Billy watches “the bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires […] everything and everybody as good as new again” (74). Time travel transforms the manufacturing of bombs into the disassembly and safe disposal of unneeded weapons. For Billy, the movie ends in its beginning, where the soldiers “turned in their uniforms, became high school kids” (75). From there the movie ends, and Billy imagines the ending.
Every time I read this, it moves me, even though nothing really happens. Immediately following this scene, Billy goes outside and gets kidnapped by aliens. However, that large, life-altering scene is given equal importance to this quiet moment. It is a reminder that it is not required to cut out “ordinary” actions or events, instead focusing on making them seem necessary, and finding a way to build character and beautiful prose out of anything without overwriting a scene. Vonnegut shows new ways to write about old things, and how to pull emotion from simple lines.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. NY: Dell Pub., 1991. Print