We are informed at the outset that all is not right – “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”
A lesser book might focus on the questions of who Billy Pilgrim is and how, exactly, he became the hapless time traveler we meet in the pages ahead, but Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist parable “Slaughterhouse-Five” is less interested in narrative convention than in exploring the larger existential issue of how one maintains one’s sanity (or doesn’t, as is occasionally hinted at with Billy) in a world filled with violence, warfare and suffering.
Although the book is generously peppered with memorable passages, there is one which particularly captures its writer’s pitch-black sense of humor: “Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.’ Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
Originally published in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, and heavily influenced by Vonnegut’s horrific experiences as a POW during World War II, the book has both a strong anti-war sentiment and an equally strong humorous fatalism, as evidenced by the following exchange:
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No, what do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars and that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
Vonnegut is no sentimentalist, and he seems to have taken to heart Jean de la Bruyere’s dictum, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.” He thus chronicles Billy’s witnessing of a series of tragically destructive battles with a cheerful disengagement and increasingly acidic wit. The book’s famous refrain after depicting an atrocious act of human violence is, “So it goes.”
The tone of amused fatalism stops at one point, however, and Vonnegut’s underlying compassion and humanism emerge with a beautiful and haunting passage in which Billy imagines . ah, but why reveal that here?
When Vonnegut died last spring, the book most prominently mentioned in his obituaries was this one. There was a reason for that. Although deeply disillusioned by world affairs, he still had the passion and talent to write as if we might somehow recognize our world through Billy Pilgrim’s eyes and thereby live more consciously. But even if that doesn’t happen, we’re still left with an often scathingly funny story of a world in which it may indeed be the best we can do to simply shrug and say, “So it goes.”
Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book reviewer.