I can’t help but think about the publishing industry when I am reading. It is a bias that colors my view of every book I read. Then again, art is subjective for just this reason, because everyone is biased in some way, whether they care to admit it or not. So while reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what agent or publisher would buy this thing today? No doubt, Vonnegut has a brilliantly creative mind, but I can’t imagine what his query letter would look like, because the story in Slaughterhouse Five is all over the place, and I mean that in the best possible way.
In The Devil’s Advocate: Everything You Know about Writing is Wrong, I argued that what matters most in fiction are the ideas the book contains, and Slaughterhouse Five is possibly the best proof of that assertion, because what truly sets Slaughterhouse Five above the rest is the wealth of its ideas. Vonnegut is a breath of fresh air, bucking every literary trend, every piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard. The sole protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, isn’t really all that interesting, or proactive, and doesn’t have much of a narrative arc. The plot, if there is one, is hardly consequential. Vonnegut even breaks my one cardinal rule, what I wish more indie authors would learn NOT to do, telling more often than showing. But Vonnegut is the Jackson Pollock of telling—nobody does it better.
Vonnegut, and writers like him, is what fiction so desperately needs right now, because storytelling has become depressingly homogenized. I blame indie-publishing for this, which has given rise to a flood of authors all vying for attention, because the only way to get attention in this attention-starved, internet market, is with click-bait. But if you can fit your story into a sound bite, that probably won’t be a book I’ll want to read.
That being said, if I had to sum it up, Slaughterhouse Five is about a man, Billy Pilgrim, who has come “unstuck in time,” after getting kidnapped by aliens, and learning to see his life in four-dimensions. So the story jumps all over the place, randomly, to various points in Billy’s life, just as Billy experiences it. But this isn’t really a time-travel story, or an alien story, and there is good reason to believe that the narrator is unreliable, that Billy never meets with aliens and doesn’t move through time, but is simply suffering from PTSD, after having survived as an American POW in a slaughterhouse, during the bombing of Dresden, the oft-forgot German city nearly wiped off the map.
If I were Vonnegut talking it over with an agent, I might tell him that Slaughterhouse Five is about the inevitability of life. Despite the many hardships Billy endures, he learns to take it in stride, because of the gift given to him by the aliens (which brings to mind the film, Arrival): the power to see the future, to see that everything that will happen has already happened, and that fate can never be changed. There is a kind of fatalism to this perspective, but also, a sense of liberty. Death doesn’t bother Billy, because when seen in four-dimensions, the end of life is like the end of a table. The table still exists in space, just as a person continues to exist in time, into eternity.
Ultimately, I don’t think Vonnegut intended his readers to come away with any message. If I had to guess, I would say that Vonnegut is, like Shakespeare, a dramatist, a writer’s writer. In true literary fashion, Vonnegut reflects the absurdity of life, both the tragedy and the humor of it, and he does so with a wit and honesty that never fails to entertain. The only fault I can find in his story, and the reason it doesn’t rank higher in my review, is because nothing really feels consequential. The book simply ends when it does, without rhyme or reason. But this is a flaw by design, as I don’t see how a story about endings not mattering could have had a great ending.
Would Slaughterhouse Five get published today? I doubt it. It was a product of its time, and yet the world is all the more richer because Vonnegut’s voice was in it. I think Vonnegut would find both sadness, and humor, in our declining literary landscape. As Billy might put it, the river of history is truly beyond our control. We can paddle this way and that, stride toward some measure of meaning, but are mostly just going along for the ride, helpless but to watch with clear eyes and honest hearts, and laugh at the absurdity of it all. So it goes.