Monday, June 21, 2010

There's a Reason Some Books Are Considered Classics

Book Reviewed: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes, it's hard to understand how a book achieves its status as a literary "classic." I've read a handful of classics that I absolutely hate. I've also read minor works and loved them. What makes a book classic has very little to do with its emotional content or popularity. Rather, it's about a book being resonant with its time. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are made amazing by their artistic reaction to the emerging modern world after war; Dostoevsky's broken moral societies are views into the chaos to come in Russia. Some books are classics because they're just plain good. But most are classics because of what they do within context.

Kurt Vonnegut's famous war novel Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books. It's such a bizarre little novel. It's about war and aliens and time travel and life and death. Trying to describe it to someone is nearly impossible. It starts out in Vonnegut's own voice, then transfers its attentions to Billy Pilgrim, an awkward man who survived being a prisoner of war in World War II Germany and the bombing of Dresden. Billy becomes a successful optometrist who eventually reveals to everyone that he has been abducted by aliens and is simply living his life in little time lapses. He can go forward and backward in time, always by accident. The aliens who have abducted him, the Tralfamadorians, can see all of time at once, a fact that Billy (and seemingly, Vonnegut himself) finds beautiful and preferable to our own world. See why it's hard to describe this book to people?

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as an awkward high school student. Vonnegut was the favorite writer of my beloved high school writing teacher, so I felt it was necessary I read his most famous work. I wasn't disappointed. I remember really liking the book back then. As a teenager, I was obsessed with war as a literary subject. I loved anti-war novels like crazy. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the most famous American war novels of all time. It's treatment of war as a bizarre venture and its depiction of Dresden as something so harrowing that it can barely be mentioned is made all the much more poignant by the protagonist's time-travelling. When the book finally hits its final pages, we really get to see the devastation involved in the total destruction of Dresden in World War II. Vonnegut's writing makes Billy's avoidance about talking about the war seems so much more tragic in those final pages. And the book is even more powerful when you consider that it was written just as the Vietnam War was becoming unbearable.

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that absolutely deserves its status as a classic. The writing is plain but powerful, able to be funny and depressing at the same time. Also, for those of you who don't know, the novel is responsible for one of the most famous lines in all of American literature: "So it goes." When Vonnegut died a few years back, that line was all over the place. It's the Tralfamadorian response to death, and it is used so often in the book that it manages to become simultaneously silly and tragic.

This is one of those books that always makes me shake my head and say, "Wow." I really don't know how Vonnegut's mind managed to create something so strangely poetic. Seeing a belated response to devastation in the context of current disaster is what makes this book a classic. It's not necessarily one of my most favorite books, but it is one of the maybe ten or twenty books I think everyone in America should read in his or her lifetime.


  1. My favorite high school English teacher had us read _Sirens_of_Titan_, which I absolutely loved. It features Tralfamadorians and the topic of time, also (with a bit of war, actually!); I used it in my capstone paper in Marnie's "Time" class last spring.

    This favorite teacher, though, suggested that if I really liked any Vonnegut, I should read everything he wrote in the order in which it came out. There's something in the sequence, apparently. Reading all of Vonnegut in order is one of my goals for before I turn thirty; care to join the quest?

  2. I would love to join you in your quest. Vonnegut is the only writer born and raised in Indiana that I really like, so I feel it's my duty as a Hoosier to read everything by him.