Unpopular Opinion: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a bad novel. While taste is subjective when it comes to classics of all stripes, I found Slaughterhouse to be littered with problems from start to finish, from form to content.
The novel is the story of a man who unwillingly begins jumping through time. Well, sort of. The story of Billy Pilgrim, WWII veteran and optometrist, is actually revealed in the first section of the book to be the text of a novel by a narrator (perhaps Vonnegut himself). The up-front admission that henceforth all is fiction made it rather hard to care what happened to this fictional time traveler. While I’m one who cares almost absurdly for the fictitious people I read about, Vonnegut never managed to make me believe this was anything other than a novel.
Our psychonautic time traveler is at some point abducted by aliens known as Tralfamadorians. This would be well and good if it added something to the book or brought some kind of clarity to the plot. It really does neither, nor does it seem that Vonnegut really knew what to do with this plot thread and so let it drop without much comment. The aliens seem to serve the purpose of elaborating on what we already know:
All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
This sums up the idea of the novel, and it comes just four pages into Billy Pilgrim’s story. The rest of the novel to follow elaborates this point to death. I would find the idea explored in the novel much more enjoyable had it not been spelled out so thoroughly just a few pages into the tale. The mental time traveling that Billy proceeds to do would itself suffice to paint this idea. We did not need the aliens, and we certainly didn’t need the theme spoon fed to us.
Within the Tralfamadore subplot is an underdeveloped relationship Billy has with another abductee, a starlet named Montana Wildhack. They have a romantic tryst on an alien world and eventually have a have a child together. There is a very fascinating line in the book about the Tralfamadorians revealing that there are actually seven human sexes, and all of them are needed to sire a child. This both funny and imaginative conception is not explored again. In fact, being that Billy and Montana are the only two humans on Tralfamadore, it follows that they should not be able to have children. Yet, somehow they do. Not only does their sex create a child, it creates a big, gaping hole in the plot.
The most interesting parts of Slaughterhouse-Five are those that focus on the war narrative. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to forget that Billy’s story was a fictional tale within the book, so the investment I felt in his plight was minimal. Even within the fiction it felt like fiction — a sort of extra-fictional fiction. While I’m not opposed to authorial intrusions or the acknowledgement that what is presented before you is a work of fiction, we aren’t allowed to forget that Billy’s story is fiction. The author makes sure we won’t forget, giving us lines like:
That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
Whether you believe these lines refer to a fictional narrator or to Vonnegut as the author-narrator, it becomes impossible to be invested in the fate of Billy when the narrator reminded us that he and only he was real, not the story of this time-traveling optometrist.
Is this a well-told tale? From the perspective of craft, I simply cannot call this book anything other than bad. Yet, many people find both humor and depth in this book. I did not personally count more than a single chuckle, nor do I consider a book devoted to spoon-feeding me a sole theme to be a work of depth. Perhaps approaching this book like one does a low-budget B film would be wise. You don’t expect much from the form and plot holes have the possibility of adding to the charm of the attempt. I personally couldn’t approach this book like a B film, but I also wasn’t warned. If anything, there was no small amount of hype from Vonnegut fans.
So consider this a warning. This book isn’t like other classics. It’s form is highly flawed and it’s content is so simplistic that the reader may feel like the author is holding their hand even though they’re goddamn old enough to be crossing the literary street by themselves. And, yeah, you might just love everything about it. Apparently thousands have. But then again, you may just find it to be a bad book and nothing more.
About the author:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven (Harvard Square Editions, 2016), a little novel about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. He is the administrator for Literary Fiction Writers, the largest group on Facebook devoted to authors of the genre. He interviews writers for Hello, Author. Find him here and on Twitter @AuthorGreene.
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