Last week, upon hearing that Kurt Vonnegut had died, I immediately put Slaughterhouse-Five into my bag before heading out the door. I’ve intended to read it for well over a year now, and the man’s death was a clear indication that the time had come.
I’ve read at least two other novels of Vonnegut’s: Breakfast of Champions as a teenager, and Cat’s Cradle between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I enjoyed both books, and remember Cat’s Cradle very fondly — my hope was that Vonnegut would improve upon a re-visit. Sadly, this was not the case: I certainly do like this novel and Vonnegut’s trademark style and approach, but I think my taste for him has withered for the time being. There’s no telling how one will feel about an author later in life, but I think Kurt Vonnegut and I are through for a while.
The most enjoyable aspects of Vonnegut’s style are closely tied to its shortcomings: he is a highly amusing writer, ruthlessly clever. His prose oozes dry irony, and his best sentences have a quick bite that is wholly his own. There is much to praise in Vonnegut’s application of this style to Slaughterhouse-Five‘s big scary topics: massacre, death, and war. His cutting, counter-cultural tone centers around the stoic phrase “So it goes” that marches through the text. Whenever a death or tragedy is mentioned, “So it goes” follows immediately. At times Vonnegut’s placement of the phrase is gut-wrenching, at others light and humorous. For example, take these paragraphs from page 101. At this point, Billy Pilgrim, the book’s protagonist, is lying in bed at a mental institution, next to a man named Eliot Rosewater, who is also a WWII veteran:
Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.
[Three paragraphs later]
There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table — two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.
A fine stoicism and humor colors Vonnegut’s “So it goes”. These two qualities are the best of what Vonnegut’s writing offers.
My trouble with Vonnegut’s writing is when it becomes too cute. Take, for example, the three paragraphs that come between the two I just praised:
So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.
Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.
Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”
I find these short, one-sentence paragraphs, with their italics for emphasis, pithy and way too precious. I realize I’ve just sectioned off one half-page of a novel, but I did so because it so clearly demonstrates the highs and lows of Vonnegut’s style.
Vonnegut is, first and foremost, a stylist, and whether the reader enjoys his books depends on the reader’s own sense of style. This reader believes that Vonnegut is a shining example of a very old brand of stoicism, which he has successfully updated into modern times by restyling it, draping it in irony, knowingness, and cutting humor — traits that very successfully appeal to modern sensibilities. In Slaughterhouse-Five, his ideas are not large or deep, but his topic is, so his stance of detachment and sardonic wit operates in place of traditional analysis and insight. It’s something, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s for me.