What English Language and Literature Grad students do in their spare time: meet at a coffeeshop to discuss a novel that they chose to read for fun. That's right. Reading can still be fun. And despite the fact that none of us really have time to pursue written works extraneous to our coursework, there we were. Discussing Slaughterhouse Five, one of the most messed up and wonderful books out there. Here are some of our thoughts on this novel that refuses to glorify war:
The structure of the work is post-modernist, reflecting the fractured mind of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who is suffering from PTSD. The first section acts as an introduction to the narrator's writing process as he himself tries to write the great "Dresden novel". He is not able to proceed into that realm alone, but creates an alter-ego, Billy Pilgrim, as a coping mechanism to explore what he experienced, while allowing himself to remain at a safe distance. The trauma of the events of war affect Billy Pilgrim to the point that he invents an alien race (inspired by Kilgore Trout) and his abduction by them to cope with the chaos and "unpleasantness" of war. It was suggested that his time in the Tralfamadore zoo could be equated with his time in the POW camp, where he was separated from the toxic atmosphere of the front. Alternatively, this could also be Billy's fantasy, paralleling his domestic life with his wife after the war. Another suggestion was that the zoo represented a kind of Edenic state of innocence, where Billy is naked and unashamed. Animal imagery is also present, in the zoo where Billy is displayed in a cage; the only time Billy cries during the war is when he sees the pain the horse pulling his cart is in. The strongest relationship Billy seems to have (apart from with Montana, perhaps, even though she is part of his fantasy) is with the dog Spot who dies ("So it goes"). The repeated chorus of "so it goes" in the novel echoes the Tralfamadore acceptance of all events in time as inevitable, knowing the time and circumstance of their own demise, as well as the dead voices of Billy's comrades. This could be another coping mechanism for both Billy and the narrator. Images of childhood, introduced by the subtitle "The Children's Crusade", is everywhere. Billy is called a child by his daughter in his old age for his "crazy" behavior. Cinderella is evoked. Billy's jacket is too small for him, perhaps showing that through war he has outgrown his innocence - the jacket becomes animalistic as it hangs over him in the hospital, something brutal and ominous. The best part of how the novel is structured from my perspective is how Vonnegut plays with the Tralfamadorian concept of all time happening at once: he integrates touchstones into scenes that foreshadow or remind of other events. For example, one of the soldiers that Billy travels with for part of the novel believes he and two scouts are the "Three Musketeers", a romantic image that disappoints and ultimately ends in death. At another point, Billy's wife is eating a "Three Musketeers" chocolate bar, a reminder that the war is happening NOW, at least for Billy who is reliving his life out of order and all at the same time. Vonnegut succeeds in portraying war in all its unpleasantness without allowing it to be glorified: this theme comes to a head in the scenes that contrast the British soldiers who live in comfort outside of the actual conflict who believe it to be a "gentleman's war" and the American soldiers from the front who are without "proper hygiene" and who throw up all the rich foods that have been laid out for them.
We discussed many other aspects of the novel, but these were the highlights! Next month we're meeting to discuss The Alchemist. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comment section!