The Meaning of Slaughterhouse-Five, 50 Years Later
“Fifty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five,” James Parker wrote last month. “It’s the same age as me. And the older I get, and the more lumps fall off my brain, the more I find that rereading is the thing.”
Like James Parker, I delight in the rereading of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I do every year with my high-school class of juniors. I tell them the book has something new for every decade so they should save all their lovely annotations and reread it in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
But I was sad that Parker missed the point of Vonnegut’s masterpiece. He said that the text has an “exultant brokenness,” and that Vonnegut, like Saint Paul in Paul Tillich’s sermon, “dwelt with the pieces.” Not quite. There is nothing in this book that is not connected to, well, everything else. It’s rather mind-blowing, really, how Vonnegut managed to do that. Certainly, the fractured PTSD mind is emulated, but the art is that in 25 years of writing this, he managed to put all the pieces together.
Vonnegut isn’t going to let his book turn into a John Wayne movie, which is to say, there will be no celebration of—no attention to the details of—death, because this book is a celebration of life.
Here’s why, in Vonnegut’s words: “I suppose they will all want dignity.” Remember the people, the life of the person, and not the details of the death. Celebrate what you have control of. If you are troubled by your life, your relationships, politics, cruelty in the world, turning 50, global warming, that’s why you need to read this book. Vonnegut will help you see that while life certainly has its ups and downs, the best way to deal with it is to look at the pleasant moments, change what you can for the better, and work to bring dignity to all humans. I hope for that reason everyone will read Slaughterhouse-Five on this 50th anniversary of its publishing—either again or for the first of many times.
Castro Valley, Calif.
Through the past 50 years, I’ve read it three times. The first, I roared with laughter, and at times was immediately saddened by the very next sentence. The second time I read it, I was working on my own PTSD. The third time, I was saddened and cried when I finished. The only other book I’ve read three times is All Quiet on the Western Front.
While it affects the thrust of the article little, I must disagree with the author’s statement that “had Russell Hoban written no books before Riddley Walker, and no books after it, his reputation today would be exactly the same.”
Hoban’s children’s books about a young badger, Frances, are absolutely delightful. A great deal of my respect for him is based in the fact that he produced both works. His heavy, brutal ideas in Riddley Walker have no doubt shaped my thinking, but then the phrase Things are not very good around here from A Baby Sister for Frances has turned marital tension over the state of the house into an intimacy-building, stress-melting inside joke for me and my wife. That one mind mastered both weight and light compels my wonder more than either could in isolation.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
James Parker replies:
I am grateful to Brian Cooper for sticking up for Russell Hoban’s writing for children. The Frances books are indeed lovely, and The Mouse and His Child, for me, comes right behind Riddley Walker in the list of his great works. But there is something so violently imperishable, if I can put it like that, about Riddley Walker that I truly believe it will outlast everything else.
I envy Sarah Tunik’s class of Vonnegut-reading juniors, and I’m sorry if my piece gave the impression that I regard Slaughterhouse-Five as some kind of incoherent postmodern jumble. Because it isn’t. She’s right: Every part fits. The fragmentation is not meaningless. I think my sense of where the meaning lies, however, might be different from hers. I don’t get it from the text itself. I get it from what I fancy I glimpse through the gaps in the text: white-light sacred irony, an eternal raised eyebrow, Vonnegut himself with his mustache full of compassionate stars.
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