The reasoning behind my Vonnegut fandom is four-fold…
A) I’m a big fan of philosophy because, I dunno, it kind of helps explain why we exist, do what we do, think the way we think, and know the things we know. There are plenty of enjoyable “philosophy books”—throw me some Thus Spoke Zarathustra any day—but sometimes they get too murky and they start to hurt your head. When that happens, a good alternative is *philosophical fiction*-- a discussion of philosophical ideas within a more entertaining, consumable, fictional setting. Vonnegut is particularly adept at this genre.
B) He has a tendency to incorporate elements of science fiction in a nuanced way. In general, I’m pretty indifferent towards sci-fi, but I love that his incorporations are bizarre but light-hearted.
C) He utilizes the “unreliable narrator” technique in which the person telling us the story isn’t entirely credible, either by their own admission or by the fact that they are too wound up in the plot to notice their own biases. This literary approach is masterfully employed in previous novels I’ve reviewed such as The Brothers Karamazov, Gone Girl, Lolita, and more. In my opinion, it is implemented most beautifully in Death with Interruptions. It is a very enjoyable device in that it lets readers feel they are experiencing the fictional journey alongside a human narrator.
D) He never fails to make sardonic social and political critiques that stem from his staunch humanistic beliefs. Humans for the win!
Enough about how awesome I think Vonnegut is and more about this book in particular. It follows Billy Pilgrim-- a WWII POW in Dresden, Germany when a massive bombing occurs in the city. This was a historical event that happened to Vonnegut himself. Because it’s a war book, there’s obviously speculation as to the meaninglessness of life and usage of fatalistic themes that so often accompany mass-slaughter. While it would be easy to introduce those themes straightforwardly, Vonnegut embodies them in an alien race of Tralfamadorians who, fittingly, live on Tralfamadore. Pilgrim is prone to narcolepsy, and when he falls asleep, he travels in time. At one point, he is captured and transported to Tralfamadore, where they each learn about each other’s way of life.
Turns out, the Tralfamadorians know what’s good. Their perspective of the universe centers on a basic principle: “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will” (Vonnegut, 27). Because they can see all instances of life simultaneously, “[they] can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And [they] don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures… they see them as great millipedes—with babies' legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other” (Vonnegut, 87). That might seem overwhelming, but Tralfamadorians are perfectly equipped and content with their perspective. In fact, they think that the Earthling perspective is so terribly limited and fixated. I kind of wish that I could see my baby legs and old-person legs at the same time because then I’d look hilarious running on a treadmill. Admittedly, I already look hilarious running on a treadmill as it is.
The Tralfamadorian conception of time is expressed through Pilgrim’s time-traveling pilgrimages. During his time on earth, he wants to share the Tralfamadorian way with others, “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls” (Vonnegut, 29). After all, it certainly makes dealing with death easier. Everyone lives forever because even though you might be dead in one moment, you are very much alive in another. Asking “why” things happen is futile—when something happens, it is simply because “the moment was structured that way” (Vonnegut, 117). Of course, the notion that humans have no free will is scary and not easily accepted. But even if you don’t fundamentally believe in the possibility of Tralfamadorianism (and of note, I don’t think Vonnegut does either), isn’t there something beautiful, comforting, and eye opening about their perspective? They don’t overthink life and they’re able to fully enjoy the good times and fully accept the bad. Things aren’t always peachy—one Tralfamadorian admits, “on [some] days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments…” (Vonnegut, 117). That seems pretty chill.
This is what chill looks like, according to Vonnegut:
I won’t give any more of the plot away but trust me, it’s totally awesome and just as weird as everything I’ve described above. Vonnegut is not for everyone, but you should definitely give him a try. Cat's Cradle is excellent, but I’ll give Slaughterhouse-Five* a slight edge—although that might just be the recency effect. Both books earn the coveted 5 out of 5 camel hump label and should be a staple of any bookshelf.
*Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969. Print.