Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Somewhere in my estimable liberal arts education, I missed reading any of Vonnegut's work. Probably because I was educated in the halcyon days of pre-9/11 when we didn't have to think about war yet or what it meant. I'm kind of glad I didn't read it when I was younger. I don't think I would have related to this book as well, or would have appreciated what the characters faced if I didn't have adult responsibilities thrust upon me. I think life experience played a significant role in my reasons for connecting so strongly with the narrative.
I like how Vonnegut plays with the arrow of time. If you watch any documentaries or read anything about particle physics, you would know that all of those smart guys in physics are wondering why we're on a track, this one track, and what it means in relation to the Universe as a whole. Vonnegut's use of time skipping, and living life almost simultaneously is genius, and well done. The track could be followed. It explains "The Time Traveler's Wife" a whole lot better, and why I couldn't make it though that book.
The setting is unusual. The bombing of Dresden is--still--overlooked. I took a History of WWII class in college, and other than pointing at Dresden on a map, not much was mentioned. The concentration camps, H-bombs, paratroopers, and naval manuvers were covered very well, along with the social implications here at home. However, no one says anything beyond "Dresden was bombed." I don't know that that little piece of history will ever change in the face of so much carnage and evil elsewhere. Pointing it out in books such as this will keep the memory alive.
I identified with Barbara, Billy's daughter. While I wasn't as young as she was when the responsibility of caring for someone who could no longer care for themselves was thrust upon me, the issues remain the same. On an intellectual level, no one wants to take away anyone's dignity (I guess someone would if they're a sociopath and incapable of empathy). Navigating that line between someone who has cared for themselves for many decades without your help, and doing what is best for them becomes blurry and stressful. On the one hand, Billy is going nuts while on the other he still has to live in the world that isn't the alien planet. Our society, for all of their pro-life rhetoric, doesn't really want to take care of those who have taken care of us. We shove old people into homes, forget that they're there, and then use modern medicine to not let them die. We don't care that they have lived through a concentration camp, or that they were in a firebomb in Dresden. Life is life, and it is supposed to be sacred. Frankly, I found that Barbara just didn't know what to do and was drunk on responsibility.
In the book "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow" the narrator claims that she is "...a veteran of a veteran." I think Vonnegut captured this sentiment very well, without saying it. Robert, Billy's son, had to find his own way in life among the emotional disconnect that was prevalent in their household. I know about this kind of family dynamic. I have watched it before, and have been in that dynamic. The thing that I didn't get about the book was that Billy started talking about it all: the alien trips, the bombing to the historian, going on the radio, etc. In my experience, veterans are closed mouth and won't talk at all about any of it, no matter if it is eating them alive or not. In Jung's theory of the Collective Unconscious, Billy has left a legacy to any children Barbara or Robert might have of questions, half siblings and cousins, and wondering what the hell to do with all of the leftover social implications of that time period as a middle-aged adult. As I said before, I've lived with this dynamic and Vonnegut got it right.
This was a very emotional and moving read. It isn't one to take lightly, or to sit around and read for fun. It is one of those books that takes the right "mood" and will lead one to ask more questions and hopefully, open the door to find answers of life.