By Kurt Vonnegut
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.
So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five is about war and yet not about war in the same way that it is not about the author and yet completely about the author. Let me explain.
Kurt Vonnegut was at Dresden, one of the deadliest civilian center airstrikes of World War II. Some say it killed 23,000 people; some say 130,000. Either number is too large. Immediately after the war was over, Vonnegut told friends, family, and editors that he was going to write a book about Dresden, but it took him nearly 25 years and countless revisions before he finally had something to show for himself. The book was Slaughterhouse-Five. Its fictional main character, Billy Pilgrim, is in a group of POWs who get shipped to Dresden about a month before the bombing, the same group Vonnegut is in. Billy bumps into Vonnegut a couple times, but for the most part, the story sticks to Billy’s life and experiences as a soldier. So although the story isn’t told in first person, the book most certainly is an account of what Vonnegut, himself, experienced.
In that same way, this book isn’t really about war. It’s billed as an anti-war book. In the first chapter, Vonnegut explains how it took him years to capture the atrocities he witnessed at Dresden. Billy Pilgrim is a soldier. But for large portions of the book, we jump forward and backward in time and see Billy as a child, as a newly-wed, as a father, as an aging man. It’s not so much a book about war as it is about time, humanity, the purpose of life, and the cruelty of wars that take all that time, humanity, and purpose away from children who are too young to know what they’ve missed.
I’ve never quoted the blurbs from the back of a book, because I like to think I can do a decent job all by myself, but there’s one excerpt from a review of Slaughterhouse-Five in Life that is just too perfect – “A funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears.” How incredibly true that is. Vonnegut doesn’t write about death to get you to cry. He doesn’t write about life to make you appreciate what you have. He doesn’t ask anyone to apologize for the war’s atrocities. He writes about it because, “So it goes.” He is not as wild and in your face as Heller in Catch-22, but he’s not as vivid and gruesome as Faulks in Birdsong. He writes with such a gentle and very human voice that touches your soul.
The book is thin, barely over 200 pages. And yet, every single word is filled to the brim with thoughtfulness and meaning. He asks the big questions: What is the meaning of life? Do we have free will? Why us? Why now? He doesn’t really provide any answers, and he doesn’t expect any answers from the reader. But at least he succeeds in making you think about them. The book is a piece of art, no doubt. I just wonder if Vonnegut knew he was a genius, or if he slipped away filled with self-doubt and life-loathing like so many of them do.