Top positive review
It's Vonnegut, so...boyer beware
Reviewed in the United States on January 22, 2019
I write this review for the first-time Vonnegut reader. In my freshman year at Texas Tech University, we read "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (I'll call it BOC from now on.) It wasn't the first piece of illustrated literature I'd read, but all the quirky illustrations were simple, hand-drawn images of objects I never expected to be depicted in such a way, such as little girl underpants and a beaver. In BOC, Vonnegut (pardon if I don't put the Jr. on each time) introduced the character Kilgore Trout, a writer of science fiction. At one point, Kilgore Trout has an exchange with a truck driver that includes this conversation:
“Excuse me,” said the truck driver to Trout, “I’ve got to take a leak.”
“Back where I come from,” said Trout, “that means you’re going to steal a mirror. We call mirrors leaks.”
“I never heard that before,” said the driver. He repeated the word: “Leaks.” He pointed to a mirror on a cigarette machine. “You call that a leak?”
“Doesn’t it look like a leak to you?” said Trout.
“No,” said the driver. “Where did you say you were from?”
“I was born in Bermuda,” said Trout.
About a week later, the driver would tell his wife that mirrors were called leaks in Bermuda, and she would tell her friends.
[Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions (pp. 91-94). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]
I remember laughing out loud at that passage, Anyway, I fell in love with what I thought was his sense of humor and went on to read six more of his books. As I did, I got more and more depressed. I eventually quit reading his books because I couldn't take it. One of them that I never got around to reading was "Slaughterhouse-Five". I wish I had. It would have explained a lot.
Like "Breakfast of Champions", Vonnegut put himself, along with his characters, into the books. This is especially true in "Slaughterhouse-Five" (which I will now refer to as S5). S5 chapter 1 begins with Vonnegut's own story. Chapter 2 begins the story of Vonnegut's avatar, Billy Pilgrim. The story, both the fictional and true elements, is how during the Second World War they got to the German city of Dresden and then survived its firebombing. Witnessing that event in particular and World War II, in general, had a profound effect on Vonnegut. He became charmingly cynical in the extreme.
An NPR writer said this about him, "Kurt Vonnegut was a counterculture hero, a modern Mark Twain, an avuncular, jocular friend to the youth — until you got to know him." He wanted to reach young people with his writing even though he was 50 years old. So he created a writing voice that reached the Viet Nam-era youth to tell them his damaged views of life. It worked. Books like S5 and BOC flew off the shelves. Normally, you have to be dead a long time before they are teaching your books in freshman college courses unless you have become a countercultural hero. Such was the case. (BOC was published in 1973 and I was a freshman in 1975.)
You may think I am warning you not to read this or any of his books, but it isn't true. I think he was a brilliant writer and truly was an American master. But, I also think you should inform yourself about what is going on behind the scenes. There is no lack of information about the enigma that was Vonnegut, so do a bit of digging and make sure you understand something about the trip you will take.
One of the things you'll discover about his books is to watch for his "signature move". In BOC, the little drawings were the quirky window dressings he added. In S5, he uses the phrase "So it goes." When you read S5, you'll see this phrase every time death is mentioned, whether it is the death of a person, an idea, a product or whatever. There has been a fair bit of analysis written about what he meant by it. One of the things about World War II that deeply affected Vonnegut was the mass killing of people whether by firebombing (Dresden, Tokyo, etc) or the nuclear bombing of cities (Hiroshima, Nagasaki). This was death on a grand scale and it had a profound effect on his mind. In S5, there are over 100 references to death and each one is accompanied by "So it goes." Quite often, the references are both ghastly and ironic.
Here is an example:
"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."
[Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (p. 31). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]
I hope you enjoy "Slaughterhouse-Five"; I did. However, I protected myself by waiting until I was 63 and knew how to guard my mind. Others can tell you more about what you'll get from the story. I'm just here to make sure you are wearing your safety harness.