Am I crazy or is Kurt Vonnegut?

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?

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5 Comments

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5 Responses to Am I crazy or is Kurt Vonnegut?

  1. Really? Your objection is a lack of sincerity? I see Vonnegut’s texts as almost painfully sincere, something like an anguished refusal to be resigned even as one is all but inured by absurdity, all whipped up into tropes that we would dismiss as hokey if it weren’t for the fact that he’s just so damn earnest about it all.

  2. fictionadvocate

    Yep. I felt like any sincerity was choked out by his self-conscious fussing and his narrative hijinks. Are you saying the hijinks are a reflection of the absurd historical moment? I hear that. But I don’t know why that would lead us directly to scatalogical humor and dime-store wisdom. Are you saying the hokey stuff is *supposed* to be bad, and that’s why it’s good? This may come down to a difference in “taste.” Also, when did you first read Vonnegut? I wonder if he wears thin as we get older.

  3. Tony

    I don’t think the question is whether or not the “hokey stuff” (which I never found hokey but hilarious and interesting) is supposed to be bad but whether it’s supposed to be believed. I think this is a book that relies heavily on its introduction, the chapter where Vonnegut speaks of how long its taken him to write a book about his personal experience in the fire bombing of Dresden. Then we go into a novel where we’ve fallen out of time, where we get flashes of Dresden but are unable to stay there for more than a few pages. One reading could be that this is Vonnegut still, after all these years and books, being unable to look directly at this tragedy for too long. This may explain why the aliens seem straight from a movie and why the main character gets to jump out of tragedy and into a glass dome where he has sex with a movie star. Of course, I may be reaching.

    Also, Billy Pilgrim is not a stand in for Vonnegut. In this novel, Vonnegut is a stand in for Vonnegut. He is a pathetic character but makes sense in this novel as an antithesis to the macho characters usually found in war movies placed in a moment in history that has no real space for heroics.

    In conclusion, Vonnegut is great. Brian is crazy.

  4. Baba O'Reilly

    I think that you missd the point of Vonnegut. He isn’t an author that will stick to one style and always be poetic or descriptive or even based in one world. The passage that you described it very typical Vonnegut, a poetic description with a point. Have you ever looked at people from a balcony high above? I, personally as a people watcher, find that they are alot of fun to watch. I think you’re reading too much into a poetic description.

    Slaughterhouse five isn’t my favoright Vonnegut, if you want a Vonnegut that is more in the style for every reader go with “Cat’s Cradle.” If you want a really jerky, in your face Vonnegut go with “Breakfast of Champions.”

  5. Todd Smith

    First read Slaughter House 5 at 57. It took my 19 yr old daughter to introduce me to Vonnegut.
    Talking to the porter post napping on the train “Man” porter says,”you sure had a hard on!” Pure genius,best set up to a laugh that has ever been uttered!!!My take; Billy and Vonnegut are the same man trying to explain the horrors, that can’t have description, with the only tool available, humor.
    I can’t wait to read his other works.

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