Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Believe Care Invest: Slaughterhouse Five

In the first chapter, Vonnegut tells us that this is a mostly true story and he was actually there for the bombing of Dresden. The second chapter introduces us to Vonnegut’s alter ego Billy Pilgrim, who is convinced that he’s unstuck in time, and has been abducted and put in an alien zoo, in addition to his own experiences in Dresden. In the war flashbacks, he has to deal with a psychotic fellow soldier named Roland Weary.

Why Billy might be hard to identify with: The first chapter gets us to invest in Vonnegut, not Billy, then it’s a little awkward to shift to the fictional character. Once we meet Billy, we never really believe his perceptions: He’s got PTSD from the bombing and he’s recently had a head injury from a plane crash. In the Dresden flashbacks, he stresses that he was totally incompetent, which usually keeps us from liking a hero. Even worse, he “wouldn’t do anything to save himself.” Traditionally this makes heroes pretty hard to care for, but Billy is an exception. I think it has something to do with the recurring phrase “So it goes”. The book gets us into a different, more philosophical mood, admiring the character who is learning to let himself be carried along by events, and despising the character fighting so hard against the Nazis with his own weaponry

  • An abundance of detail that Vonnegut actually witnessed: the bizarre equipment of a chaplain’s assistant, for instance. “While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy played hymns he knew from childhood, played them on a little black organ which was waterproof. It had thirty-nine keys and two stops- vox humana and vox celeste. Billy also had charge of a portable altar, an olive-drab attaché case with telescoping legs. It was lined with crimson plush, and nestled in that passionate plush were an anodized aluminum cross and a Bible. The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey-and said so.” 
  • His life as an optometrist is believably mundane.
  • His son is fighting in Vietnam, tapping the novel into real life national pain. To a certain extent this whole book is about Vietnam, where America was already creating a lot of new Dresdens. Vonnegut is saying, “Even the ‘good war’ wasn’t all that good, so what does that say about our current entirely-unjustified war?”
  • Vivid similes throughout: “Billy was preposterous-six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches.”
  • He’s “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent.” We care for characters who are cold, hungry, and embarrassed. We usually ask that character not be incompetent, but we accept it here.
  • He’s totally humiliated: “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.”
  • It’s hard to invest in him because he’s so hapless, but his meek faith will serve him well: God seems to be watching out for him throughout the novel, as he survives against steep odds through no effort of his own.
  • No matter how much he blundered into it, that doesn’t take away that he survived being a prison of the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, so that’s still pretty badass.
  • We do admire the way he spars with Roland Weary by refusing to engage with Weary’s psychosis. We like heroes who don’t let themselves be baited, and let big talkers hang themselves.
    • ‘How’d you-like to be hit with this-hm? Hmmmmmmmmm?’ he wanted to know.
    • ‘I wouldn’t,’ said Billy.
    • ‘Know why the blade’s triangular?’
    • ‘No.’
    • ‘Makes a wound that won’t close up.’
    • ‘Oh.’
    • ‘Makes a three-sided hole in a guy. You stick an ordinary knife in a guy-makes a slit. Right? A slit closes right up. Right?
    • ‘Right.’
    • ‘Shit. What do you know?’
Strength/Flaw: Zen / Helpless

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