Tag Archives: Vonnegut

What’s the hurry, son?

hocus pocus

Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.

mother night

Howard J. Campbell, as you might have discerned from the letter above, is not a popular man. Quite the opposite. After the end of World War II, he had plenty of enemies and very few friends. Born an American, Campbell moved to Germany as a child before WWII, only to eventually become an illustrious figure in the Nazi regime as a propagandist, issuing malicious anti-semitic campaigns.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

Branded a traitor and despised by the world as a Nazi war criminal he currently sits in an Israeli jail, on trial for his crimes, using an old German typewriter to pen his memoirs – his version of events. Campbell, who worked under Goebbels and became a celebrated figure in Germany during the war, says his actions were a result of a secret deal to become a spy for the US military.

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

Published in 1961 Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, and it is typically Vonnegut; heavy topics and dark themes narrated with prose that is light, funny and painfully human. Vonnegut states the book’s moral right from the off: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be. And so we read Howard J. Campbell’s memoirs, as he tries to justify his vile and hateful deeds. As he would have us believe, his frequent radio broadcasts (in which he X) were containing codes which were providing intelligence to the Allies throughout the war. But Campbell, and by extension, the reader, is in constant turmoil. Are evil deeds justified, if they service good?


While Campbell confirms he was approached by Frank Wirtanen, a US military agent (or his ‘blue fairy godmother’, as Campbell describes him) to work as a spy during the war, this is not acknowledged by the US government once the war is over, and Campbell is unable to prove his innocence. When he is discovered after the war, alive and well, back in the country he betrayed, the mob bays for his blood. Campbell is forced to seek shelter and support from his only allies – fascists and racists that still see him as a hero for his Nazi propaganda. This supporting cast are reprehensible for the most part but Vonnegut is able to find something good (and entertaining) in most, even if they are still awful people.

‘You hate America, don’t you?’ she said.
‘That would be as silly as loving it,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.’
‘You’ve changed so,’ she said.
‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else what are world wars for?’

Vonnegut creates a whole void of grey, a million shades away from black and a million shades away from white, in which you genuinely are unsure whether to root for and sympathise with Campbell, or condemn him. But while Campbell is beautifully conflicted and guilt-ridden, he was not quite – for me at least – as compelling a character as I am used to reading about in a Vonnegut, nor the cast of satirical support. They did not affect me in Mother Night as they have in other novels, such as The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle.

Let there be nothing harmonious about our children’s playthings, lest they grow up expecting peace and order, and be eaten alive.

Having said that, Mother Night is still an outstanding book and while it is not my favourite book by Vonnegut, it is written by Vonnegut, and so it has its trademark gallows humour and moments of bittersweet and humanistic victory, as well as terribly sad conclusions.

It was late autumn. Oysters had come back in season, and we were feasting on a dozen apiece. I’d known Kraft about a year then.
‘Howard — ‘ he said to me, ‘future civilizations — better civilizations than this one, are going to judge all men by the extent to which they’ve been artists. You and I, if some future archaeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter.’
‘Umm’ I said.

breakfast of champions6

When Kurt Vonnegut reached fifty years old, he felt the need to ‘clear his head of all the junk in there’. As a result, he wrote and illustrated Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday! in 1973. He may have thought the contents of his head was simply junk, but I and thousands of others can bask in the glory of his head-junk. Because it’s really great stuff.

breakfast of champions

Breakfast of Champions won’t be getting a plot summary from me. Sure, I could tell you that it revolves around two men. One Dwayne Hoover, a used Pontiac salesman who is terribly well-to-do, until he goes on a rampage across Midland City injuring eleven people after reading a book depicting (what he interprets as) him as the only free-thinking human on a world full of machines.

“I saw that sign,’ said Dwayne, “and I couldn’t help wondering if that was what God put me on the earth for – to find out how much a man could take without breaking.”

The other, Kilgore Trout, unsuccessful and ageing author of the very same book that makes Dwayne go crazy and a writer of generally pretty crappy (but interesting) science fiction.

“I can’t tell if you’re serious or not,’ said the driver.

I won’t know myself until I find out if life is serious or not,’ said Trout. ‘It’s dangerous, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s serious, too.”

I could also mention the plethora of other characters who are equally weird yet compelling real. Like Harry LeSabre, a cross dressing colleague of Dwayne’s who is the first to notice his strange behaviour. Or Bunny, Dwayne’s alienated homosexual son who plays piano in a cocktail bar. Bill, Kilgore Trout’s parakeet whom upon granted freedom from his cage is scared of the possibilities and retreats back to safety. And one of the most intriguing characters, the Narrator, who has created this universe, who realises that while he is the Creator of all these characters and is the reason for the lack of free will in all of their lives, while he is in their world, he cannot control them any longer.

There was a message written in pencil on the tiles by the roller towel. This was it:

breakfast of champions3

Trout plundered his pockets for a pen or pencil. He had an answer to the question. But he had nothing to write with, not even a burnt match. So he left the question unanswered, but here is what he would have written, if he had found anything to write with:

To be

the eyes

and ears

and conscience

of the Creator of the Universe,

you fool.”

Curses – I’ve already told you too much. It’s funny and saddening and a whole lot of crazy.

breakfast of champions5

Listen: Vonnegut writes with an effortless simplicity, depicts the funny and tragic in equal doses. He pours the atrocious and inexplicable behaviour of our species into his work and on paper it makes even less sense. Themes such as slavery, racism and inequality are laid bare and out of the context of history they seem even more atrocious. This particular passage is even more relevant today.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tis-sues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

breakfast of champions2Who needs a coherent plot and likeable characters when what you write is so damn entertaining? And that’s why I read Vonnegut. He’s pure entertainment, and he’s seen the absurdity of it all, and he accepts it for what it is. Life is absurd. And here is a picture of an asshole:

breakfast of champions4

Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle is typically difficult to nail down in terms of genre. To define his books as science-fiction is like calling Moby Dick an adventure book; there’s much more to them than that. It is science-fiction, but there’s a hearty dollop of satire. And while it’s a tragic tale, the way its written reads more like a comedy. Vonnegut’s fourth novel, the book was published in 1963.


The narrator of this story is John, or Jonah, who is attempting to write on what Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We follow him on his investigation into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb that killed thousands in Japan and brought WWII to an end. To learn more about him he contacts thes the three Hoenikker children, still affected by their father’s life and legacy, and it is through them he stumbles across Hoenikker’s last and most deadly invention, ice-nine. A blue crystal like substance, split into three and owned by the Hoenikker children, that upon contact would crystallise every droplet of water it touched, turning the Earth into a blue frozen tundra.

After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ Felix Hoenikker. The bloke who invented the atom bomb. Promising. . .

John’s investigation takes him to the republic of San Lorenzo to interview Dr Julian Castle, where he is introduced to a number of strange and interesting people, including Dr Castle’s son and the owner of the island’s only hotel, Philip Castle, ‘Papa’ Monzano the island’s old and terminally ill dictator, his daughter Mona Monzano, the most beautiful woman John has ever seen, and the three Hoenikker children, Frank, Angel and Newt. And it is through his eyes and writings we witness the end of the world.

“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.

“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.

“Very good answer”.

Dialogue throughout is often funny and smart.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.


‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours”.

Vonnegut goes to town creating the wacky island of San Lorenzo, with a rich cast of characters and strange traditions and the fascinating religious movement, Bokononism. Many of the most thought-provoking quotes are Bokononist teachings, and John reveals during his tale that he too has become a Bokononist through his experiences on San Lorenzo.

cats cradle

To my eyes there are two main themes within Cat’s Cradle. Firstly, Ice-nine, Hoenikker’s technologically (or biochemically?) bewildering invention, clearly representing weapons of mass production (more specifically atomic warfare given the book was published a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the threat their mere existence poses to humanity. The science involved is astounding. . .but ultimately the vast amount of intelligence and hard work has gone into creating something primarily to kill. And as is shown, accidents can happen – it doesn’t necessarily take an evil madman to destroy the world. What is somewhat amusing in the book, but terrifying in reality, is how easily this ensemble of inadequate and flawed characters have access to a doomsday device that can end humanity. We see how recklessly the Hoenikker children use it to get their wants. Angela, for example, gives some of her ice-nine to the Americans in exchange for a stunningly attractive toy-boy husband. Frank trades some of his ice-nine to Papa Monzano of San Lorenzo to be a Major in Papa’s shambolic army. The poor, poverty-stricken San Lorenzo where fatefully, ice-nine is allowed to be unleashed on the world.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. Vonnegut perhaps warming up his war-weariness for his most renowned work, Slaughterhouse 5.

Which leads to the second major theme of Cat’s Cradle, religion. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s calypso/Carribean themed religion, and the native religion on San Lorezno. The general theme is that we are attracted to certain people and objects throughout life, and those within the same group, a karass, are linked and somehow intertwined through the will of God. Within John’s karass is Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three children along with many of the characters he encounters in San Lorenzo. Members of the same karass often express their love in the ritual ‘boko-maru’, where the bottoms of feet are pressed against one another. Like a sole-shake.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” Bokonon, in the Books of Bokonon, admits that it is all a lie, right off the bat. There is no deceit.

Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *foma = harmless untruths

Basically, Bokonon created Bokononism as a relief to those who need it. A lie can be a good thing if it promotes happiness, no? The inhabitants of San Lorezno are thin and dying, starving in poverty. They use Bokononism to make their lives more bearable.

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad

But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;

Because without “Papa’s” badness,

Tell me, if you would,

How could wicked old Bokonon

Ever, ever look good?

Bokonon’s calypso on Dynamic Tension

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

Bokonon’s calypso on trying to understand

The very ending of the book shows Bokonon, sitting on the top of Mount McCabe, with a piece of paper containing scrawled handwriting. John approaches him and reads the final words of the Books of Bokonon;

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who. The final sentence within the Books of Bokonon

That is how the book ends. Does this mean, upon reading this, John finishes his account and commits suicide? Is that the end? It seems likely. To discover Bokonon, contemplating his religion. To see him write like this, why did he carry on the charade of Bokononism all this time, if this was how he really felt? Or did he genuinely think he could make a difference, only for ice-nine and the end of the world caused by the events on San Lorenzo shatter his faith in (God/fate/mankind?)

Short and sweet, written simply with a rapid turnover of chapters, Cat’s Cradle is probably one of Vonnegut’s more accessible books. The warnings of humanity’s self-made destruction in ice-nine and the soothing falsities of religion as themes can be as shallow or as deep as the reader wants to take them. Or you can ignore that all together and read about a strange bunch of characters who together bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,

And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.

And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,

Why just go ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.

Bokonon’s calypso on the end of the world

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Finally; Winston Niles Rumfoord has put into words his new religion, one that truly can apply to one and all, uniting humankind at last.

Of course, it took a little planning for the Earth to subscribe so willingly to this new, all-encompassing religion. To attain peace on Earth, it took a lot of travelling – but being spread throughout the universe helps. Creating colonies on Mars and leading an army to annihilate and enslave all life on Earth. Ultimately it was a mass suicide, and when the last Martian ship to reach Earth, gleefully fired upon by the Earthlings, was revealed to consist of unarmed women and children, the glorious war was over. Masterminded by Rumfoord, the Martian sacrifice was needed to prolong the horror at the end of the glorious war. A perfect time to introduce his new religion.

“All was forgiven. All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.” The war between Earth and Mars resulted in bringing humanity together, closer than ever before.

It had to be done. Rumfoord should know. He has seen the past and he has seen the future.

The Sirens of Titan, written in 1959 is only Vonnegut’s second novel, yet shows astounding ambition to tackle issues of free will, the purpose of human life and history and insights into the meaning of life.


Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, have travelled through a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, located just off the planet Mars. As a consequence, Rumfoord and Kazak are spread throughout the solar system as ‘wave phenomena’, existing along a spiralling path between the Sun and Betelguese, and materialising whenever a planet crosses their path. On Earth for example, he materialises along with Kazak every 59 days in his home town of Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” Winston Niles Rumfoord on the nature of facts and beliefs. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it is not always as simple as who is right and who is wrong.

Upon entering the infundibulum Rumfoord became aware of the past and the future. Thus, when Rumfoord makes his consistent, scheduled appearances on Earth he prophesies and predicts, drawing a fanatic following and crowds that come from miles around in an attempt to witness one of Rumfoord and Kazak’s materialisations.

Malachi Constant is a billionaire playboy. Born rich with everything he ever wanted, the luckiest man on Earth. He is summoned to the Rumfoord estate, to visit and speak to Rumfoord personally; one of very few to have such an honour. Constant is told he will be sent to Mars, where he will be bred (with none other than Rumfoord’s wife, who is less than impressed by this latest prophecy), before visiting Mercury, Titan (a moon of Saturn) and finally revisiting Earth again. Clear so far?

What follows is an account of Constant’s life; a life he has no control over, where he loses his identity and memory and is forced to do terrible things. All, seemingly, to greaten the impact of Rumfoord’s new religion, The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent.

On Mars he is Unk. He is controlled by a pain-emitting antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He has no recollection of his life as Malachi Constant. He has raped Rumfoord’s wife (now known as Bea, and now similarily amnesiac like Unk/Constant) and fathered the resulting child, a German kickball prodigee named Chrono. He watches as the entire fleet of Mars launches a terribly ineffective assault on Earth, leaving thousands, almost all Martian, dead.

He is directed via spaceship to Mercury, hidden deep underground for several years with just Boaz and the harmoniums for company. Boaz used to control Unk’s mind with a device, but now they are equal and Boaz keeps his peace of mind by attending the needs of the harmoniums, simple and small, peaceful creatures that feed off vibrations.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.” Boaz, on Mercury and the Harmoniums.

Any clearer?

sirens of titan

Obviously I’m skimping on the plot, and I would dread to think that anyone reading this is getting the impression that I found The Sirens of Titan a confusing read and Vonnegut an unclear narrator, because that’s simply not true. It is so readable and accessible, as so much is when written by Vonnegut, even when dealing with some complex and heavy themes.

What I would say is that you are constantly waiting for some sort of payoff – an explanation to these events. This is not a complaint – the book builds slowly and there is a sense of epic expectation. I felt such sympathy for these characters, despite some obvious flaws. After all Constant was a greedy, lazy man, undeserving of his great wealth which he so gladly attributed to luck, he raped a woman and murdered his best friend Stony Stevenson. But, as he later says, I was a victim of a series of accidents. As are we all.

I felt for Rumfoord’s situation of being spread across the solar system, and I despised Constant for his air of superiority. Then I despised Rumfoord for his god-like status and omniscient arrogance and sympathised with Unk’s struggle. Constant is used superbly by Rumfoord…but then we realise Rumfoord himself is being used by a higher agent, which emphasises the lack of free will for these characters.

The final act which takes place on the titular moon of Saturn – Titan – is simply breathtakingly good fiction. We meet Salo, a stranded alien from Trafalmadore, who has been travelling the universe for millions of years with one mission and one mission only – to deliver an envelope containing a message to a worthy but unknown and unspecified destination far far away.

The subject of free will, which is a strong part of Slaughterhouse 5, definitely plays a big part here in Sirens. There are several wonderful ironies. Salo, a machine, has more free will than Rumfoord, a human who has seen the past and the future. Salo, a machine, is programmed to keep his message sealed until he reaches his goal. Yet he reveals it in order to appease a friend. What does that say of free will?

Even Rumfoord, the man who has seen the past and future, is distraught to realise that even he has been used – by a robot, sending out a distress call to its home planet, requesting a spare part for its broken down space ship. We learn that the purpose of human history was to communicate to the stranded Tralfamadorian on Titan. Monuments such as The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge were built by civilisations being controlled by messengers from Tralfamadore.  They were reassuring Salo – letting him know that help was on the way. He just needed to be patient.

The characters within the book are all so varied; the main differences are their beliefs and philosophies, none more valid than another. What does seem to be emphasised, is the meaningless of it all. The utter pointless nature that is life. But it is also reinforced that it does not matter, as long as one makes their own life have meaning in their own terms and values, which is of course different for us all.


The Sirens of Titan is an intriguing and beautiful piece of science fiction. It is transformed by its final act into a grandiose work of immense scale and immaculate ambition. I found it heartbreaking and humbling but stunningly beautiful. I apologise; I don’t think this post has done the book justice. Scattered and lacking depth, it’s taken me a few weeks to finish writing on it. I loved the book, and I hope that has reflected here as I’ve found it difficult to analyse it coherently.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” Bea / Mrs Beatrice Rumfoord, and her thoughts and philosophies after a tiring life of confusion and hardship.

“When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everyone. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

“Take care of the people, and god almighty will take care of himself.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And finally some thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut himself. The above quotes I found particularly moving and informative of his own views. The turbulent events in his life that could lead him to think he was a pawn, a player in a larger plan. The atrocities at Dresden of which he witnessed first hand, blended with further personal and family tragedy. He was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are. I see this book as an attempt to give meaning to life, to answer those questions that have plagued Vonnegut and countless others over the years, the reason of our existence, the point of it all. Slaughterhouse 5 may be Vonnegut’s most important and critically acclaimed book in his bibliography, but The Sirens of Titan is my preferred out of the two.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Malachi Constant, The Space Traveller, on his return from space and his thoughts on the struggle that is life.

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.


Slaughterhouse 5 follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who was present during the horrors of the Dresden bombing. A prisoner of war at the time, we read a rambled account of his life before, during and after this cataclysmic event. Rambled you ask? Yep. That’s because Billy Pilgrim time travels, subconsciously. This account of his life takes him from war-torn France to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, to his days in school to his enclosure at the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and eventually to his death. So it goes.

Not in any particular order mind you. Billy Pilgrim does not experience his life on a continuous plane, and nor does the reader. How anyone else would experience their lives, as a linear progression of events and ageing as time goes on, is declared absurd. At least, this is what Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians who abduct him and teach him about life, time, free will and the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians are strange alien creatures. Their ideas on free-will and the fourth dimension hugely influence the Slaughterhouse 5’s unorthodox narrative. The events of the novel, zipping backwards and forwards from one of Billy Pilgrim’s life event to the next, is very much how the Tralfamadorians view time. They can see the 4th dimension, and are believers that everything that has happened, is happening or will happen, can’t be changed.

Rather than a straight line, they see time as assembled moments which can be experienced simultaneously, memories and experiences being ‘all at once’.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The Tralfamadorian in the passage above speaks to Billy on the strange fascination that humanity has with the idea of free will. For them, and by the sounds of it all other life in the universe, all events are structured beyond the control of their participants. In other words, enjoy the ride. This applies to death too. Death is unavoidable and as such there is no fear of it. The Tralfamadorian saying “So it goes” is adopted by Billy Pilgrim and the narrator throughout the book, a casual saying that highlights the nonchalant approach to death. It is not an end, rather another moment that exists at the same time as all other moments one will experience in their life.

“Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.”

We can see why Billy Pilgrim finds it easy to believe the Tralfamadorians and refuse the notion of free will. The passage above shows that even at an early stage, Billy Pilgrim had little choice in his circumstances. He was going to learn to swim, and he had no choice in the matter. He would later be rescuing from drowning, and he had no choice in that either. Billy is slightly awkward and a very nervous individual, something which he attributes to his moving through time – he never knows which piece of his life he will have to perform next.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Slaughterhouse 5 is a satirical anti-war novel, or at least that’s what it might appear to be upon first glance. Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden atrocities, which makes the book somewhat semi-autobiographical. And so it would make sense for the novel to be anti-war. Who better to write it than Vonnegut, who was present and witness the destruction first hand? The unnamed narrator of the book, who introduces the life of Billy Pilgrim, is almost certainly a version of Vonnegut himself. And several times in the novel, he is mentioned as being present. When the American soldiers are emptying their upset stomachs into the latrines, the narrator is there with them. When the prisoners of war finally arrive in the German city of Dresden, the troops are enamoured by its beauty. The narrator pipes up, describing it as ‘Oz’. These mentions keep the book rooted in reality and make its impact more meaningful and believable.

After some time away from the novel (and a chance to let it sink in), I have more of an idea of what this book is meant to be. I’ve reached over for my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 more times than I can count in the last fortnight. Not to give it a proper re-read – not yet anyway – but I find myself skimming through random passages and chapters, much like Billy Pilgrim finds his mind scattered between his life’s timeline.

This is a book which cannot be pinned down by genre. It is a book of Billy Pilgrim’s search for a reasoning behind human suffering. Religion and patriotism don’t really cut it, and so Billy Pilgrim (either in his mind, or for real) leaves Earth for Tralfamadore, where you can experience your good memories and you can never die. Even before birth and after death you can sense something, before being swung back into a memory from within your lifetime.

Billy is indifferent to life. He ends up being in situations against his will – reinforcing the Tralfamadorian notion of fate over free will. He’s dragged to war in a position he hates:

“Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”

An uninspiring insipid existence which sums up most of Billy Pilgrim’s life. He stumbles through it. He doesn’t take action. A passenger in his own life. He rarely makes choices. The war, his marriage, even as he grows old his daughter walks all over him. He is an observer to the mindless violence and horror, which eventually drives him (or his mind) to another planet, somewhere where he can attempt to make sense of all this. But even then, he doesn’t discover any of this for himself – the Tralfamadorians teach him all he knows.

Billy manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge where stronger, fitter, better men perish. Fate? He is forced to continue through enemy lines by Roland Weary, a violent but equally inexperienced soldier with grand ideas of war and fighting and heroics. Frequently, exhausted and broken Billy tells Weary and the scouts who accompany them, “You go on. . .You guys go on without me. I’m all right.” But Weary forces him to continue.

Billy, at least later on in his life, seems to acknowledge this indifference to life, and is ashamed and embarrassed as it makes his relationship with his mother unbearable.

“Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward – always got much sicker until she went away…She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”

Whilst reading I never had any doubt that Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on Tralfamadore were real; or at least he was convinced they were real. He speaks of the abduction very matter-of-factly

“Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer…Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.”

The war plays a huge part of the novel, and obviously shook Vonnegut. War is described using particular experiences. Very little heroics, very few soldiers wanting to be where they are. And for the majority of the book, the soldiers we experienced are prisoners of war. They have no choice, no freedom, no control over their situations. War is not romanticised here, and characters in the book that do look upon it favourably, e.g. Roland Weary or Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, who tries to reason with Billy in a hospital ward they at one time share that Dresden was justified, are cast by Vonnegut as the villains of the piece.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

The wife of the narrator’s war comrade is furious to find out he is to be writing a book on the war and his experiences, as she thinks he will glamorise war. He does not – Slaughterhouse 5 reinforces the pointlessness of war, and the narrator even promises that he will call the book ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which is actually the subtitle to the book itself.

Vonnegut describes some moments that typify war and suffering, and certainly does not romanticise or glorify war in any way.

“Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.”

In the aftermath of the firebombing that ravaged Dresden, Billy observes the calculated ruthlessness that has murdered a large proportion of a city. When the bombs dropped, no thought was given to who the targets would be – soldiers, women, children…or ironically, American prisoners of war.

“So Billy made a [syrup] lollipop for [Edgar Derby]. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears.”

One of the most noble, senior officers, Edgar Derby, is reduced to tears after tasting syrup; so desperately starving he had been. To see someone that Billy Pilgrim looked up to, as a real gentleman and good guy, dehumanised as a victim of sufferable war, is significant.

“A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed – that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. . .

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scoled him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.”

This is also extremely interesting albeit sad and tragic. Billy cries for the only time during the war. Why? Because of the condition of the horses? The horses are similar to Billy, and the rest of his imprisoned soliders. They are following orders, with no way of making sense of the destruction that surrounds them. Like Billy, they are innocent, but continue marching on, following orders that they can’t possibly understand.

So it becomes reasonable to assume that Billy Pilgrim, understandably, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he has experienced in the war. Suddenly a lot of the strange observations and memories make more sense. Those terribly written but fantastical stories written by Kilmore Trout – a way of escaping reality, or to lose himself within the absurd plots.

When considering Billy’s nightmares, his kicking and screaming in his sleep while on the boxcart in Germany (resulting in the other soldiers unwilling to sleep next to him), easily startled and the flashbacks – not becoming unstuck in time, but relieving moments from the war that he cannot forget.

The prime example of these flashbacks is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary. A barbershop quartet performs for Billy and his fat wife, Valencia. A latent memory from Dresden is triggered, and the effect it has on Billy speaks for itself.

“Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. . . Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.”

“‘You look so awful.’

‘Really – I’m O.K.’ And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.”

The whole space travel experience on Tralfamadore is now put into perspective. A way for Billy to deal with the horrors he has seen and can’t explain. An attempt to make sense of the senselessness of war. If we have no free will, and our actions are pre-determined, then it is hopeless attempting to explain and prevent such appalling events such as war and suffering. And so Billy Pilgrim creating a world for himself, where there is no free will, is his way of attempting to comfort himself, his existence and his peace of mind.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”

This was my first Vonnegut experience, and I loved every word. The genre of Kurt Vonnegut, from what I’ve heard, is primarily a blend of satire and science-fiction. But I don’t recognise Slaughterhouse 5 as a science fiction book. Sure, Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time spend on Tralfamadore comes straight from the world of science-fiction, and Kilmore Trout is introduced along with many of his bizarre fantasy books as a science-fiction writer. But these are fronts. Methods of escape used by the characters. Billy and his mental ward-mate Rosewater read these works of science fiction by a rather poor writer in Trout to escape a reality that they can, or no longer want to face. Billy escapes to Tralfamadore to find explanations to life, suffering, war and the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden.

Poo-tee-weet?” is the final phrase of the novel. Billy observes the charred landscape of a ruined Dresden, met with silence but for the song of birds. The question mark indicates this bird is asking a question, but as we cannot understand it and it makes no sense to us, we have no way of answering. I think Billy Pilgrim (and Kurt Vonnegut) realise that the question of war, and the atrocities come with it, also pose questions that we simply cannot answer. In which case, “Poo-tee-weet?” is as intelligible a thing to say at the end of a massacre as any spoken words we could actually understand when trying to describe the indescribable.

It’s a strange piece of work and anything but coherent. It has dark humour, a meandering plot; it’s beautiful and emotional as you might expect from someone who was present at the time. Make sure you read it before you ‘die’. So it goes.