Jump Back! This novel will always make me think of Kevin Bacon. No, this isn't some literary version of "Six Degrees." It's just that they talk about the novel by Kurt Vonnegut in the movie Footloose. Someone mentions that a teacher at the high school is planning on teaching it. Kevin Bacon chimes in and says it's a good book - a classic. Then comes one of my favorite lines in the movie: "Maybe in another town it's a classic."
I bought this book at a yard sale for 25 cents. When I had read about half of it, I found a plane ticket stub inside from Taipei to Bangkok. I also discovered a "Disembarkation Card" for The People's Republic of China. I have spent more time thinking about the prior owner of this book than I have spent thinking about the actual novel. Was it a boy or a girl? Was she/he young or old? Was he/she going to see family? A lover? A friend? Traveling alone? A story within another story. This is the wonderful thing about buying books second-hand. I suppose I should recycle some of my old books - then maybe someone can wonder about me and where I've been and where I'm going. I'll have to try to work up the nerve to part with some of my library.
So, what do I have to say about this novel of which I had such high expectations (being that I associate it with one of my favorite movies)? Not much. It was dull and it seemed extraordinarily long for only being 215 pages. It's supposed to be an anti-war novel, and it is to some extent - it doesn't exactly paint war and the effect it has on soldiers in a favorable light. But it just doesn't strike home like it should. A novel like this - one that has such purportedly philosophical statements to make about war - should resonate with any audience - no matter which war, which country, and which era the reader is in.
I get that the character is detached, and the way the novel is written is supposed to reflect that detachment. That's why the story is told out of order (time-jumping) , and why the sentences and sections are so short. That way there is no build-up and no climax. The novel is minimalist and baren - just like its protagonist Billy Pilgrim, and just like the war.
The most annoying thing about the novel is the sentence "So it goes." This sentence is written after any mention of death in the novel. I may have actually enjoyed reading Slaugherhouse-Five if I hadn't had to read that sentence at least twice a page. A person gets killed? So it goes. A dream dies? So it goes. A city full of innocent civilians is destroyed? So it goes. The phrase itself is infuriating - it makes death trivial and indistinct - every death is of the same value. The repetition is supposed to be annoying, I think, but that doesn't make me appreciate it any more.
However, the novel is not completely without merit. I learned a lot about the end of World War Two that I didn't know, there are some interesting science fiction tidbits, and there are many clever, witty sentences besides "So it goes." English prisoners of war are described as being "adored by the Germans, who thought they were exactly what Englishmen ought to be. They made war look reasonable, and fun." In addition, "the wretched Poles were the involuntary clowns of the Second World War."
The best food description I've ever read (it even beats all of Hemingway's food descriptions in A Moveable Feast): "He ate a pear. It was a hard one. It fought back against his grinding teeth. It snapped in juicy protest." That sentence almost made me want to eat a pear. Almost.
I get the novel. I get its detachment and I can see plainly that it is an anti-war novel. The author tells us that from the beginning. (He also undermines himself by telling us that it's not very good). But I don't feel it. I suppose I'm not meant to (hence all the detachment). But it doesn't make me hate war. I didn't like war to begin with, but I don't like it any less now. The novel doesn't suggest an alternative to war, or how to cope with it. It just tells the awful story of Billy Pilgrim - an unwilling, unsteady and ultimately unlikable soldier. War sucks. So it goes.