Here we are, trapped in the amber of this moment

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Kurt Vonnegut is a genius – and it turns out he is a real connoisseur of the present moment – but he never stood a chance. I heard phenomenal quotes by him: ”We are what we pretend to be”, and rave reviews from a lot of well-read people. Reddit told me that Slaughterhouse-Five was a good place to start – and so I did. His examination of Christianity is excellent. The aspect of his book that left me feeling let down is the whole antiwar piece. He preemptively defends his attempt to write an antiwar book in Chapter 1 by acknowledging that its most likely a pointless affair – but still, his antiwar manifesto seems to lack depth.

“How nice – to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

Vonnegut’s reflections on religion are certainly striking. He seems to strip down all the bells-and-whistles. He makes this interesting point: Jesus was a man like the rest of us. The fact that he is glorified makes it OK for us to not strive to be like him – because we couldn’t possibly. However, an appreciation of Jesus as a nobody would allow people to take responsibility for their actions much more. It strangely reminds me of the G.O.P. philosophy and what a well-off Republican might say about the poor in the context of the American dream – just swap the concepts of morality and money around.

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5 meaning
This is what an American Nazi looks like – illustrated by John Holder

“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

Vonnegut’s descriptions of women are hilarious. He’s a Dostoevsky-level psychologist. The emotion Vonnegut creates most masterfully is that he-gets-it feeling most of us yearn for. You’d definitely go for a pint with Kurt. For me, when he said that Lot’s wife looking back “was so human” elevated Vonnegut into the “can-do-no-wrong” status. Reading about her in this context tempts me to identify her as the first ever case of PTSD – before it had a name.

“People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”

His uncomplicated sentences and the absence of excess linguistic ornaments really add to Vonnegut’s main point – war is war. While it is tempting – and indeed seduces most, there’s no use in getting caught up in the ideology or the methodology of war at the expense of understanding the plain reality of it.

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

At the start, the frequent remark “So it goes” is gratifying. It occurs anytime somebody or something dies. It has an interesting effect – for me it breaks the forth wall and lets me, as the reader, know that the author and I are on the same page. However, as the book progresses, it becomes compulsive, matter-of-factly and annoying. His use of symbolism is a little too overbearing in general. His overly physiological remarks and “toilet humour” took away from the work for me.

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5 essay
Absurd and relatable. Illustration by John Holder.

“If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.”

The non-linear nature of the narrative emphasises the senselessness of war – but again, towards the end of the book it just seems to be happening for its own sake. There are lots of non-linear compositions that benefit from this structure. My favourite examples are the films Once Upon A Time In America and Pulp Fiction. I think Vonnegut overdid it.

“Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.”

The fatalist aspect of the Tralfamadorian philosophy and the recurring quote about having the wisdom to know if you can change something, the courage to change it – and all that – seem to conflict. In a sense, Christianity is fatalist. The “So it goes” reprise has a memento mori quality to it.

“No art is possible without a dance with death, he wrote.”

Vonnegut doesn’t have a very clear philosophical message, but he seems to be convinced there is very little free will if any. The irony of the main character surviving the war despite having absolutely no survival instinct adds to this. Billy seems to have little insight into his own suffering. He escapes reality by travelling in time. Vonnegut doesn’t really offer us an opinion on whether that’s a form of madness – or real life. My impression is that Vonnegut’s outlook is that life in general appears pretty random and not worth sweating over.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

There is a lot of criticism in the above review, but actually I loved the book. My next stop is Breakfast of Champions.

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