by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


Vonnegut, at least this incarnation, bores me. It shouldn’t – Slaughterhouse-Five draws on his own experience, his own lived experience, and that at minimum should draw me in – but the humor falls flat, the characterizations seem shallow, and it reads as a puzzle for the reader to solve rather than a proper story. Certainly an interesting enigma, however .


Irony is a recurring theme in satirical anti-war books (it is the entire premise of Catch-22 after all). The case of Edgar Derby is no exception, and it is one of the highlights in my opinion. Although, I can’t stop wondering how a teapot survived the Dresden bombings. Maybe this is the irony, that the teapot survived while he didn’t.
“I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,” I said. “The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”
We can’t forget the origination of the most popular Tralfamadorian phrase of all time:

Early in 1968, a group of optometrists, with Billy among them, chartered an airplane to fly them from Ilium to an international convention of optometrists in Montreal. The plane crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everybody was killed but Billy. So it goes.

While Billy was recuperating in a hospital in Vermont, his wife died accidentally of carbon-monoxide poisoning. So it goes.

It gets tiring after some time, however. The incessant reminder of the dichotomy between Tralfamadorian death and human death serves to trivialize it, not highlight it.

There’s some cool foreshadowing with the concept of “baby-ness”:
And we were flown to a rest camp in France, where we were fed chocolate malted milkshakes and other rich foods until we were all covered with baby fat. Then we were sent home, and I married a pretty girl who was covered with baby fat, too.

Soldiers turn from men to babies after the war; they become civilized, softer from the perspective of Billy.

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars…

“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’”

But from the onlooker’s perspective, babies go to war and become men.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

And from the Tralfamadorian perspective, they just watch it in reverse sometimes. Its a good euphemistic mechanism for Vonnegut to describe the horrors of war from different perspectives. The soldiers view it as a a regression to a more primal state, their families view it as them growing up too fast too quickly, and the omniscient onlooker simply doesn’t care.

Trafalmadorian Takes

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

I don’t think that it’s possible for Tralfamadorians to exist (but we leave the metaphysical arguments for another day).

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. So it goes.

This, this is funny. The natural extension of survival of the fittest & natural selction to a truly timeless perspective, where birth and death are irrelevant to the existence of a being, is simply that death is a strictly superior state to being alive. Hilarious.

If you assume the Tralfamadorians are a metaphor for Billy’s coping mechanism, or a plot device to showcase the horrors of war from a satirical lens, then the novel reads much more clearly as anti-war, and you can examine Billy’s mental state as one would study a character in a Dostoevsky novel.

Yet, their repetitive, blatant timeless nature being constantly thrown in your face, with no regard to how such a species could in fact survive (let alone be the default!) simply undermines this effort. At least make it realistic! such that there’s ambiguity in interpretation. If something is blatantly intended to be a metaphor it loses its power.

A Product of its Time?

Billy Pilgrim says now that this really is the way he is going to die, too. As a time-traveler, he has seen his own death many times, has described it to a tape recorder. The tape is locked up with his will and some other valuables in his safe-deposit box at the Ilium Merchants National Bank and Trust, he says.

I, Billy Pilgrim, the tape begins, will die, have died, and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976.

At the time of his death, he says, he is in Chicago to address a large crowd on the subject of flying saucers and the true nature of time. His home is still in Ilium. He has had to cross three international boundaries in order to reach Chicago. The United States of America has been Balkanized, has been divided into twenty petty nations so that it will never again be a threat to world peace. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen. So it goes. It is all brand new.

Billy is speaking before a capacity audience in a baseball park, which is covered by a geodesic dome. The flag of the country is behind him. It is a Hereford bull on a field of green. Billy predicts his own death within an hour. He laughs about it, invites the crowd to laugh with him. “It is high time I was dead,” he says. “Many years ago,” he said, “a certain man promised to have me killed. He is an old man now, living not far from here. He has read all the publicity associated with my appearance in your fair city. He is insane. Tonight he will keep his promise.”

Kudos to Vonnegut for getting the geodesic dome right (featured in the 1967 World Fair). But the Balkanization of the US? Nuclear war, yet not armageddon, caused by the Chinese? This is an interesting insight into the ideology of the 1960s anti-war left (we will antagonize China by engaging heavily in Southeast Asia, therefore this seems likely), or perhaps this is meant to be inherently implausible to further highlight the irony of it all.

(I do note, this book was published in the same year that we went to the moon. Counterculture fascination with aliens at the time?)

Then there’s Montana Wildhack.

Billy mentioned casually that he had seen part of a blue movie she had made. Her response was no less casual. It was Tralfamadorian and guilt-free:

“Yes—” she said, “and I’ve heard about you in the war, about what a clown you were. And I’ve heard about the high-school teacher who was shot. He made a blue movie with a firing squad.” She moved the baby from one breast to the other, because the moment was so structured that she had to do so.

Billy’s ultimate escapist fantasy: going to an alien planet with a loving, hot, girl to bang whenever time gets hard. A fantasy shared by men of all ages, in all times, that came to the fore in the Sexual Revolution and still remains true to this day.

So it goes.