Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Chosen by Phillip Nessfield

As other people writing for this blog have pointed out, it’s extremely difficult deciding what your favourite novel is. The best book I’ve ever read is The Great Gatsby. The books I’ve read the most (by a country mile) are the Harry Potter novels. The book that meant the most to me as a teenager was The Catcher in the Rye. All that being said, I think I’m going to go for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as my favourite book of all time.

I joined a book club last year the session after the group had discussed Slaughterhouse-Five (gutted I missed it!). It seemed like the general consensus among the group was that the novel was simplistic in its linguistic style and narratively deficient, as way as being deliberately obtuse and peculiar (for the sake of being peculiar). It was one of those oddly alienating moments because I think Slaughterhouse 5 is an unbridled work of genius and one of the greatest literary achievements since the dawn of the written word!

Vonnegut uses the character Kilgore Trout, a slightly naff sci-fi novelist, to illuminate his own approach to writing. With Science Fiction, Kilgore claims, the ideas are often brilliant but the quality of the prose lets them down. Vonnegut embraces this by employing a simple form of expression comprised of short sentences and cryptic, repeated phrases (“and so it goes”, “po-tee-weet”). The grammar isn’t necessarily all correct. Sporadic, nonsensical sentences punctuate otherwise standard passages. Underpinning this style is the expression of large and complex themes, such as attitudes towards war, society, government, time, and mental health. The strength of this dichotomy is never stronger than in Slaughterhouse 5 but is present in all Vonnegut’s work.

“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” I love how Vonnegut writes about time. It reduces it to nothing more than an individual’s perception, and that makes it malleable. Time is unsutured in Slaughterhouse-Five. Time is a singularity. Time can be transcended and manipulated. The laws are interchangeable and nothing needs to make sense. You can’t worry too much about the plot of a Vonnegut novel.

Protagonist Billy Pilgrim goes forwards and backwards in time and spatially covers real landscapes and fantasy ones (the alien planet Tralfamadore). Is he actually just travelling through his memories and imaginings? My favourite works of fiction have always called into question the divide between fantasy and reality and rarely give any answers, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. Slaughterhouse-Five takes this one step further as it constantly calls into question the reliability of the narrator and even the reliability of the author himself. It highlights its own artifice, constantly breaking the fourth wall. What you end up with is snippets of literal truth, and a whole bucket load of interpreted truth. Ultimately you can end up taking everything as seriously as you want to.

I think that’s what Vonnegut wanted to achieve with Slaughterhouse-Five. He constantly hammers home the madness of the characters and the nonsensical nature of the narrative, the reason being to highlight the madness and nonsensical nature of the war itself (Vonnegut fought in World War II and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden). The other name for Slaughterhouse-Five is The Children’s Crusade. This partly equates some wartime events with the Christian crusades but more importantly, in my opinion, highlights the concept of war as child’s play. After all the crushing awfulness the author experienced, all the violent madness and human disregard, what’s there to do but laugh and be utterly flummoxed and flabbergasted? It’s pure comedy. The whole novel is an ironic slap in the face and I’ve never read an argument for pacifism more intelligently expressed in a novel, exposing its farcical targets in an absurdist way.

Vonnegut only ever utilises the silliest aspects of Science Fiction, and his writing is all the better for it. It doesn’t even try to be believable. The alien creatures ‘Tralfamadorians’ see in four dimensions, so they can see all parts of the space-time continuum. What? He gets imprisoned on a planet that’s lightyears away in a geodesic dome for procreation purposes. Huh? The creatures are green (of course) and carry ray guns. It all contrasts nicely with the visceral descriptions of wartime traumas, expanding the novel’s breadth and scope. Also it allows you to bypass getting too immersed in the world the author creates. No verisimilitude here so no suspension of disbelief required! It gives you easy access to the themes, which is the meaty bit anyway.

Slaughterhouse-Five is not for those seeking long, flowing, descriptive language with lots of big words. It doesn’t function as a conventional story. It’s reads like the subreddit Explain Like I’m Five, with its colossal ideas and smart themes expressed in a seemingly stupid way. I haven’t read it for a long time so there’s probably things about it that I like but have forgotten about. So it goes. It’s the book above any other that I’d recommend everybody read, whether they end up liking it or not. You could probably get through it in an afternoon.

A most ironic epitaph for Billy Pilgrim.

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