When Kurt Vonnegut was on The Daily Show a few weeks back, I was immediately depressed by how old and decrepit he’s gotten, struggling even to get out a joke without it turning into a pointless story about onions (red onions, which was the style at the time). Having never actually read any Vonnegut save for a short story, I decided that the time was right to pick up one of his efforts and give it a go. At Brady’s suggestion, I chose Slaughterhouse-Five—perhaps his most recognizable work, if not his best.
Within a chapter, I knew where Chuck Palahniuk gets much of his writing style. Vonnegut has a great love for motifs, either narrative or just plain verbal (“and so it goes”), and uses a sort of moseying modernist style that’s everywhere at once. Slaughterhouse-Five, via short leaps back and forth through time, tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former conscripted soldier who was present during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, during the closing days of WWII. Billy’s character reminds me of a quirky Meursault, who seems to travel throughout the book’s events in a daze, rarely expressing any emotions at all. Part of this is due, I’m sure, to Vonnegut’s very matter-of-fact approach to narrative style: “This happened, and then that person was dead a day later. So it goes.”
Despite its stylistic simplicity, this relatively short tome is hailed as one of the best anti-war novels of all time. It is, but not the the way we might generally think of anti-war novels. Of the latter group, I could cite Caputo’s A Rumor of War or Herr’s Dispatches or O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Vonnegut writes in the same sense that Swift writes, a biting but serious satire.
I’m interested to see how others pieces like Cat’s Cradle stack up to this in style and narrative breadth. For an introduction to Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five was enough to leave me wanting more.