Review of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
By COYLE NEAL
Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. That is, he does not live from second to second as most of us do, but instead jumps to the future, and then back to the past, and then again to the present (whatever that means—it can be hard to judge what the “present” is when you’re unstuck in time). Along the way, he fights in the Battle of the Bulge, lives in a German POW camp in Dresden right before it is bombed by the Allies (something which Kurt Vonnegut actually lived through), and is kidnapped by aliens called “Tralfamadorians” who both explain to him the nature of reality and fate, and “force” him to breed with also-abducted movie star Montana Wildhack. Through all of this, Billy learns the lesson that we cannot escape our fate (as evidenced by the repeated mantra “So it goes”), and that once we accept this truth we can realize that “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” (Both quotes appear regularly through the book.)
You’ll either love this book or hate it; there’s really no middle ground. Even the writing style is something that demands either your instant devotion or pure loathing. Because Billy is unstuck in time, the book is non-linear in its narrative structure. We jump from scene to scene and decade to decade with no transition or explanation, and it is only as we get more and more of the book under our belt that the overall picture begins to appear. It’s the equivalent of looking at a quilt one square at a time;
only after seeing a good number of squares can you begin to piece together the overall pattern. Which is itself a commentary on how we view life—we rarely get the big picture handed to us in a nice, linear narrative all at once. Instead, something happens, and then something seemingly unrelated happens, and then before we know it it’s Monday again and we have to go back to work. Only in exceptional circumstances do we actually see where the details of our lives fall into line with the grand narrative of human existence.
Adding to this love/hate dynamic is the fact that this book is hilarious. “What’s wrong with that?” You might be asking—well, remember the setting. Vonnegut is telling us jokes about the fire-bombing of Dresden. Which is inappropriate, to say the least. If you’re not familiar with this event, it was the massive revenge-bombing of a German city by the Allied powers. In other words, Vonnegut takes the one war where most of us agree about who was good and who was evil, highlights one of the worst things that the “good” guys did in the war, and then tells jokes about it. Like I said—inappropriate.
And yet, how else can we respond to an event like the bombing of Dresden? Or the Vietnam War (presumably Vonnegut’s primary target)? Or, well, any of the countless other atrocities human beings have poured out upon each other throughout human history? Slaughterhouse-Five suggests that the most we can do is observe that this is how the world works—how it must work, given the dominance of fate—and then laugh at ourselves, because the alternative is utter despair.
With all of that said, I do highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a Christian unused to dealing with non-Christian worldviews. We, of course, see the world through a filter different from that which Billy Pilgrim finally arrives at in Slaughterhouse-Five. We understand that God, not fate, determines the course of events (even when we can’t always see how the different parts of our lives connect); that human sin and Divine justice are at work behind the atrocities of history (though don’t ask me how those two balance out); and that laughter is not the only possible alternative to despair. We hold that faith in the Gospel is the true means by which we engage the problems of the world. When we see things through the filter of the cross, we see both the big picture and the small details in their proper context and are able to truly laugh not just so we do not despair, but out of relief and joy that the burdens of the world have been borne by another. Slaughterhouse-Five is a chance for us as Christians to watch a non-Christian struggling with all of these issues, and in doing so hopefully gain a better understanding of what it means to view humanity without the Gospel.
Dr. Coyle Neal remains stuck in time in Washington, DC.