I’ve been trying to write about Slaughterhouse Five for about five months, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I tried reading it a couple of years ago, and I didn’t like it. I was expecting something more like The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22 – a character who wanders around reflecting on the world he’s in and what his purpose in it is. (You can tell I’m still only fifty-odd pages into Catch-22, can’t you?)
Slaughterhouse Five is nothing like that, and yet exactly like that. It was a comment from a friend that really helped me to wrap my head around it, just before I attempted it again for my book club. I made a flippant comment about Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction, and she said, “But does he get kidnapped by aliens?”
Silence. Whaat? But it’s right there in the plot! Of course, it’s never that simple, but I didn’t realise that. Hadn’t realised that. I’d been reading the novel all wrong.
On my second reading it seems obvious. Whenever Billy Pilgrim’s life gets too much for him to bear – whether he’s having his choices taken away by his adult daughter, or having his convalescence interrupted by his fiancée, or getting targeted in a German POW camp – he gets unstuck in time.
And isn’t that just how it is? Whenever we’re faced with a difficult circumstance, or a challenging prospect; whenever we break up with someone or fail a test or miss out on a job, don’t we all check out, just for a little bit? Crappy movies and ice cream are a heartbreak cliche for a reason. We all need the chance to switch off and reboot after a shock. And for a book about an ordinary man living through one of the most challenging periods in the 20th Century, it seems a perfect metaphor.
I wouldn’t say that I loved this book, but it’s utterly fascinating to me, and there’s no way I won’t reread it again. It’s like a loose tooth – I keep niggling at it, thinking about the prose and the characters and Billy Pilgrim and the glass cage and Dresden. It’s easy to see why it became a classic – the prose is beautiful in its simplicity, in such a way that it (clearly) takes a couple of reads to realise that this is much more than a book about a guy who gets abducted by aliens.