Although I fit the target demographic for Kurt Vonnegut’s books—young, white, male, with affectations of literary style and hard-won worldliness—I never read him until last week. I’m not sure what to make of Slaughterhouse-Five. Bold and funny as it may be, and sprinkled with bits of capital-K knowledge, it also cheesed me off with its built-in catchphrases, its discombobulated authority structure, and its apparent contempt for its protagonists.
Here’s a telling example.
Billy Pilgrim has just checked in to a Manhattan hotel.
The room was small and simple, except that it was on the top floor, and had French doors which opened onto a terrace as large as the room. And beyond the parapet of the terrace was the air space over Forty-fourth Street. Billy now leaned over that parapet, looked down at all the people moving hither and yon. They were jerky little scissors. They were a lot of fun.
I got an electric shock from those last sentences. They seem to present the same image in three completely different ways, one after another. “Hither and yon” is a mockery of the high literary diction that’s normally found in novels. “Jerky little scissors” is quick and poetic and somehow just right. “They were a lot of fun” is surprisingly offhand. It undercuts the serious mood of “hither and yon” and shows us exactly what Billy Pilgrim, the simpleton, thinks of the pedestrians on the sidewalk below.
I’m excited by this collision of styles. But I’m also a bit lost. Which of these approaches are tongue-in-cheek? Which, if any, can I trust?
A similar excavation of untrustworthy sources plays out in the book as a whole. The book’s central philosophy is espoused by an alien race, the Tralfamadorians, who are a superficial parody of “little green men” from outer space. The Tralfamadorians may or may not exist, since we only understand them through the mind of Billy Pilgrim, a shell-shocked Army veteran who never had any brains to begin with. Billy Pilgrim is nothing more than a slapsticky stand-in for Kurt Vonnegut himself, and everyone knows the last person you should trust is an author who reveals “himself” as the man behind the curtain in his own book.
Disorientation is the goal here, for sure. But I felt like Vonnegut didn’t even give me a scrap of sincerity to hang on to.
What do you think of this guy?