Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five
(Ig Bookmarked Series)
by Curtis Smith
Ig Publishing 2016
There is a category of “Good Books” known by their perennial place in publishers’ lists and as suggestions from reliable readers. In this category is a subcategory, books my reaction to which is, “I don’t get it.” This is, as English teachers say, “OK.” There are people who are ready help.
You can see where this is going. For me, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those books—I didn’t get it (Catch 22 is another). Vonnegut has a deep catalog that calls out for sampling. Slaughterhouse-Five, for better or worse, like Citizen Kane or Pet Sounds, is known as artist’s critically acclaimed apogee. Personally, I think Cat’s Cradle is great fun, so is the tightly wound Breakfast of Champions. What I could say for Billy Pilgrim’s tale, aside from mostly liking the sci-fi parts, was far from a glowing recommendation. I found some engagement from the story and prose, the extra-terrestrial sections. I thanked the book for making me aware of Dresden. But the literary side of it felt sidelong, like if I tilted the page at the right angle I might catch a deeper reading.
Enter Curtis Smith’s Slaughterhouse-Five, part of IG Publishing’s Bookmarked series, part of a larger development of publishing text dedicated to an influential work, at a level personal, cultural, or both, of media. In the realm of music, the 33 1/3 series is a 100+ collection of short books exploring albums. NPR’s Bob Boilen this year published Your Song Changed My Life, which asks artists what was it you heard that made everything else stop. Boss Fight Books gives us the video games that had impact on writers lives. IG Publishing are the only ones that I know of that are presenting works of the written word in this line. Reviews and criticism is one thing, and I welcome this more personal approach.
There is quality of explanation that true fans of something possess; they can provide an in-road into the greater picture and clarify the value of things. I’ve found this phenomenon to be true with arts that for years I had found impenetrable, for instance ballet or professional wrestling. When I got the right person next to me to outline the drama, what’s going on can come alive in fascinating ways. That’s why I was interested to read Curtis Smith’s take and to have some light shed on the text.
When he describes Slaughterhouse-Five’s themes in larger contexts, it’s like hearing that great English teacher you had delve into a exegesis with buoyant intensity. Smith writes about the book’s relation to politics, temporal journeying, and symbolic histories. These paragraphs open up Vonnegut’s prose in those ways a consummate literature instructor is able to. I began to see dimensions of the story I hadn’t before and could make more sense of, and see the necessity for, Pilgrim’s muted emotional response throughout.
Smith mixes forms of writing. The book is non-fiction about a work of fiction. It has a strong narrative. There are recitations of facts and figures, copies of hand drawings, memoirs of the author’s experience in college and teaching. It is a perfectly formulated construction as a response to Slaughterhouse-Five using its time and subject quick-cuts as a guide.
Here too, though, were some threads that were more of an effort for me. One thread is Smith describing his relationship with his son and selected from their time together. From what I’ve read, this subject belongs to a category of things that can only be experienced, and I am squarely outside of that realm. I have no children, though close nieces and nephews. However, the topic is a relevant inclusion, though it was weeks after reading the book that I realized it. A voice on the radio said something to the effect, and I’m paraphrasing here, that children are bound up in the past whence they come from and symbolically they embody the future and what happens next. Past and future, altogether at once, like Billy’s and the reader’s experience of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Even if Slaughterhouse-Five was your book from page 1 and you’ve read it a hundred times, I recommended checking out this book. Smith’s insights and layered tracks of connections, from the fictional to the non-fictional to the personal, are a pleasure to follow along with.