Slaughterhouse-Five

By Kurt Vonnegut

Banned Books Week 2012Book cover: Slaughterhouse-FiveWhen I decided to read Slaughterhouse-Five for this year’s Banned Books Week (and the couple weeks following, as well, apparently), I was a little baffled that I hadn’t already read any of Vonnegut’s books because I like science fiction and I’ve had Vonnegut recommended to me multiple times. I even vaguely recalled meaning to read some books but never getting around to it.

Then, I got a couple of chapters in, and remembered that I hadn’t just meant to read his books before, I’ve actually started several of his books in the past, and put them down again. I just cannot get started into Vonnegut’s books, which is so frustrating because I really enjoy both sci-fi and social satire, and he is a king of both. So, I bring you this review in three Acts: Dismissiveness, Grudging Respect, Zealous Appreciation.

Act I: Dismissiveness

I spent roughly the first half of the book trying to put my finger on the problem. It isn’t as though I especially disliked it or thought it was a bad book; I just felt that I didn’t totally get what he was trying to say and that his writing style wasn’t one that speaks to me. When Tom asked if I was enjoying it, I had to admit that I wasn’t, and when he looked a bit disappointed, I followed up by saying that I thought it was a little too philosophical for me, like Vonnegut is communicating a theory about life, instead of sharing a concrete facet of life, and I get impatient with that. Tom nodded, because he has despaired of my disinterest in philosophy before, but I continued to mull over my answer.

And I think it was something even further, that his people weren’t interesting to me as characters. That they seem more like placeholders in his philosophical argument; their actions only serve to augment the message of the book. So, I didn’t have any vested interest in the future of the characters, which is especially true in this non-chronologically-linear novel where the future is all spelled out early on, and even the characters in the book don’t have much interest in it, either.

Acts II and III with spoilers and excerpt after the break…

Act II: Grudging Respect

All bitching and moaning about Vonnegut’s writing style aside, the man is clearly a genius. Written in 1953:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of the poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

The fact that the preceding two paragraphs are described in the book as WWII German propaganda written by an expat American is a level of satire so deep that I have trouble decoding it.

Act III: Zealous Appreciation

Quite a bit of the of writing is spent describing the alien race’s sense of our time. Earthlings see time sequentially, like flipping cards in a deck over one by one, placing them on top of each other, so only one card is face up at any given time. Whereas the alien race views it all laid out in a panorama. According to the book, this takes the sting out of death because while someone might be dead in one time, they are still alive in many of the other, visible times. I was having trouble wrapping my mind around how that would work.

Then, I found out that a friend of mine from years ago had died. I’ve also had trouble wrapping my mind around that. I kept thinking about how she would never randomly call me up any more simply to gossip and that I would never see her again. What I had viewed as unlimited possible future interactions was suddenly cut short to the very finite number that we’d already had and which I had not valued enough. But, I guess if you could see all of your interactions at once, it would always be a finite number that you could value simultaneously. So, I guess that’s how this year’s banned book ended up helping me cope with some personal mourning.

Epilogue:

Oh, and I almost forgot! This was on the banned book list for “condoning cursing, drinking, and extramarital sex,” and much like we found last year, the reasons for banning this book are somewhat mind-boggling. Far from endorsing these, the cursing is done almost primarily by antagonists, and the drinking and extramarital sex are both done in one scene that is overtly described as not condoned by the other characters in the book, and which brings shame on the two characters in the scene. Could it be possible that the people banning the books aren’t actually reading them first?! #sarcasm

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