Book group: Slaughterhouse Five

Date: June 20, 2007
Location: Home of Roo Dane ’61

The Bryn Mawr Club of Boston Book Group discussed Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Roo Dane ’61 refreshed a full house with a glorious fruit punch, convertible to sangria with a careful flick (oxymoron?) of the wrist. A warm welcome to new members Erica Bernstein, BMC ’92, and her mother, Judith Bernstein, a Barnard grad.

And greetings from Barbara Powell, traveling in the Mediterranean, Toby Feibelman ’65, who is still commuting to New Orleans to repair Katrina damage, and Ellen Chase, who has moved to Alstead, NH to retire to and restore a family farmhouse.

Everyone says about Slaughterhouse Five, “Oh, it’s a novel about the firebombing of Dresden.” But although this event looms large throughout the book it is briefly described in detail only a chapter or two before the book’s end. Meanwhile Vonnegut has a lot of ground to cover—the Children’s Crusade, dentistry in upper New York state, and the absurdity of time and violence. Also post-traumatic stress disorder, the name later given to the epidemic of unbalanced lives resulting from wars, disasters, and other tragedies.

The approach to the central story is a laborious, complex, time-shifting build-up defying linear time and Newtonian gravity. The main participants are a band of American soldiers captured and eventually sent as prisoners to Dresden by German soldiers hardly less experienced or professional than themselves. We watch big, clumsy Billy Pilgrim—”He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.”—blunder his dreamy way through mental blackouts and flashbacks of home and the planet Trafalmadore, where he is displayed as a strange earthling. (His companion in the alien cage is Montana Wildhack, the only really enjoyable character in the book.) He has humiliating tasks forced on him by bully Roland Weary, belligerently unsure of himself, who imprisons Billy in his strong compulsive desire to be a savior of the innocents, a hero.

And then there is “poor old Edgar Derby,” who, we are repeatedly told, is doomed, no matter what good actions he performs. Derby provides a surprising high point with his old-fashioned notions of right and wrong, his “impenetrable naïveté,” in believing that life has meaning, and that he is indeed a leader of men.

Vonnegut claims he protested against writing a useless anti-war novel. War comes back again and again, just like a glacier. His editor advised him to write an anti-glacier novel. So Vonnegut embraced the senseless, portrayed the violence of his own memories as a joke, like the hobo who dies in a transport boxcar saying until the very end that he “had seen worse.” Violence is the mental and moral battleground between coping versus a positive attitude, even comforting because no free will is involved; it had to happen.

Readers compared this work to Catch 22, to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fight in Heaven, the events to Hiroshima, and the Bagdad free-for-all we are currently witnessing. So it goes. Vonnegut cuts in and out of time accentuating the insecurity of life. “We were all secure on 9/10!” Since WWII our protest styles have calmed down, it was remarked; our sense of outrage is blunted, we are ignorant of world issues in a different way; Paris Hilton and Scooter Libby get more media attention than the honor and patriotism that enticed our elders to war. What iceberg are they the tip of? (Have we any icebergs left?) Real news is reported on blogs as the media are denied access to meaningful documents and events (no body bags filmed, please). If there were a draft today things would be different. And so it goes.