Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel
Like Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, pretty much the entire canon of Kurt Vonnegut lived in purgatory on my “I’ll Get Around To It Soon” reading list. Like O’Brien’s novel, I also picked up Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 out of a necessity to understand what it’s about before teaching it to classes of eager, impressionable junior minds. What I found in both was an incredible capacity for bringing life to life.
The novel captures the whimsically humorous and tragic odyssey of Billy Pilgrim, a frail human being who discovers he has the ability to traverse time and space during some of his darkest hours near the end of World War II. Time for Billy is a nonfactor. He views time and life, past, present, and future, as one encompassing moment of eternal existence; though he may die, he still exists in the past. A kind of beautiful sentiment, don’t you think?
But as nice as Billy’s philosophy is, his life is overall tragic. Subjected to the horrors of war and the eventual bombing of Dresden, he is consumed by his fantasies, blending fiction and reality until we as readers can no longer tell the two apart. And I think, like The Things They Carried, this narrative strategy lends itself to capturing life as a whole living, breathing entity, both its positive aspects as well as its negative ones.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the cornerstone satirical works of the twentieth century. As such, it has obvious importance in the classroom as a study of both propaganda and satire. I think both novels play off each other, and I plan on teaching them simultaneously to compare how each author uses propaganda, black humor, and narration techniques to portray their ideas of life and truth.