On another post I mentioned embarking on Slaughterhouse Five, and I have. It was definitely worth getting over my reservations about war narratives. Vonnegut’s work is the opposite of one-dimensional. Don’t expect a neat and linear narrative reduced to just one topic with him. Fabulous. I see clearly why it has received critical acclaim and even a cult-like following. I see resonances of the text in the film Forrest Gump, too, but that’s another matter for another day. Let me share some favorite quotes to give you an idea of Vonnegut’s genius (don’t worry, no spoilers!):
“And they saw bearded Billy Pilgrim in his blue toga and silver shoes, with his hands in a muff. He looked at least sixty years old. Next to Billy was little Paul Lazzaro with a broken arm. He was fizzing with rabies. Next to Lazzaro was the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, mournfully pregnant with patriotism and middle age and imaginary wisdom. And so on.”
This one never fails to make me laugh. The imagery is spectacular, particularly with Lazzaro, since his character has been set prior to this.
“Trout incidentally had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer. So it goes.”
Such an astute metaphor on human greed. And that emblematic phrase that follows every death gets you every time, whether it’s a person or a soda.
“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”
So tragically true. Are we just cogs in the larger-the-life machine?
“…people couldn’t read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls…”
A bit random, but speaks volumes of education’s struggle with illiteracy.
The story all but ends with the question of global sustainability (I wasn’t lying when I said he was varied!):
“On an average, 324,000 new babies are born into the world everyday. During that same day, 10,000 persons, in an average, will have starved to death or died from malnutrition. So it goes. In addition, 123,000 persons will die for other reasons. So it goes. This leaves a net gain of about 191,000 each day in the world. The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world’s total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.
‘I suppose they will all want dignity,’ I said.
‘I suppose,’ said O’Hare.”
With such a statistic (if indeed it is true or at least within the ball park, given the world’s steadily declining resources reaching its finite point) we are left with the nagging, uncomfortable, politically incorrect, callous question: Do we allow them to die?
Notice the privileged “we” in that sentence, and how insidiously I include myself in it, excluding “them.” That’s the real crime. The implication of difference.
Let’s all be like Billy. We can time-travel and chronicle our own death, smiling as we do. So it goes.