So, another life goal of mine is to read all the books recommended in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.
This list fell out of fashion (in many ways, thank goodness) because it’s basically “the dead white guys who wrote stuff” list. However, someone told me it used to be the indication of a well-read person to have completed all its texts.
I wish I could remember who, but that’s another mystery lost to the ages.
There are several books by women & from non-European countries. Still, it’s primarily dead white guys.
Ironically, I never actually bought The Western Canon in book form. Instead, I found a list of the books Bloom recommends & I saved it in a Microsoft Word document.
Over time, I added more books to the list. It now also has:
- “1000 Novels Everyone Should Read,” compiled by The Guardian newspaper
- “Other Books (Recommended Online & Just ‘Cause I Wanna),” a list I made up myself, obviously, with friends’ recommendations, books I’ve seen online, & books cited in other books
- “List of Books For Intelligent People” compiled by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (I know he’s a problematic figure in a post-Harvey Weinstein world, but I do still like him; I feel very conflicted)
This massive TBR list is where I got the recommendation for Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s under the “War and Travel” section of “1000 Novels Everyone Should Read.”
It was a wild ride, to say the least.
HERE THERE MAY BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED!
When I picked this book to be read after my Shakespearian foray, I thought it was going to be difficult. I mean, “Kurt Vonnegut” is supposed to be a big deal in the world of English literature. I expected this to be another hard read.
I worried that my brain was starting to seep out of my ears after The Complete Works of Shakespeare & Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Was I really going to take on the Kurt Vonnegut next??
Imagine my relief when I found out that Slaughterhouse-Five was an easy read. It had prose that was delightfully, deceptively simple, in fact. But, it was deep.
Vonnegut loosely based the main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, on his own experiences. The two men:
- Leave college to join the military (Vonnegut dropped out & voluntarily enlisted, while Pilgrim finds himself drafted)
- Get captured by the enemy
- Go with their captors to Dresden, Germany
- Survive the Allied bombing at Dresden in a meat locker
That’s where the similarities end. Pilgrim, acting as the main subject of an omniscient (or limited omniscient) narrator, finds himself jumping through time.
He has no control over these jumps. That makes the narrator choice quite helpful. We get to see Pilgrim:
- With two other Americans soldiers who aren’t fond of him
- In an exhibit on Tralfamadore – an alien planet
- With his grown children who find his eccentric behavior off-putting
- Surviving the bombing at Dresden
- On an alien spaceship
- In his marriage
- His mild obsession with a fiction writer
- British soldiers putting on a play for the American prisoners of war in a holding camp
- Trying to get through the war as a non-combative
- Surviving & recovering from a plane crash
- Working as an ophthalmologist after the military
I mixed up those bullet points to give a hint of how the book goes. It’s slightly more linear, but it jumps a lot.
However, Vonnegut pulls off mixing realistic visions of war-torn Europe with outlandish fictions. He makes it seem as though it were all fiction or all non-fiction, but that either is plausible.
I think that the ludicrous parts make the book more appealing. It played well off the dark depiction of war that is movingly autobiographical.
There’s a line that repeats throughout the book – usually after someone dies, or something awful happens – “so it goes.”
I think it was this line, among other down-&-dirty depictions of war-torn countries, that pegged Slaughterhouse-Five as an “anti-war book.”
Since it was released during the tumultuous Vietnam War, it’s the title that skyrocketed him to a household name. It only took him around 20+ years.
4.5 out of 5 stars! I would give it 5 stars, but I feel like the simplistic format means the deeper meaning gets overlooked.
Still, I already want to reread Slaughterhouse-Five (with my 50+ page TBR list, it may be quite a while). I think reading it again would reveal much more.