Michaela's Reviews > Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
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Feb 22, 2011

really liked it
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Read in December, 2010

In Slaughterhouse 5’s first chapter, author Kurt Vonnegut informs the reader that this is his war-novel about Dresden. He continues by saying that he has always wanted to write a story about his Dresden experience, but he states that: ‘not many words about Dresden came […] not enough of them to make a book.’ For a long time he thought that ‘I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages now, and thrown them all away.’ He declares that his novel, that the reader now reads, ‘is a failure’. Throughout Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut interrupts his story of Billy Pilgrim to write about writing his book. According to Janet Burroway’s and Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s, Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft, metaficton ‘calls attention to its own techniques, and insists that what is happening is that a story is being written and read. This essay will discuss Vonnegut’s authorial interruptions and why he writes Slaughterhouse 5 in this way.

Metafictional writing does ‘in providing a critique of their own methods of construction […] examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction’, and this Vonnegut does. He describes early on how he constructed Slaughterhouse 5: ‘I used my daughter’s crayons, a different colour for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all the middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. […] The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching’. He also explains why there are not many characters in his novel: ‘There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.’

In the beginning of the novel he lets the reader know that ‘the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby [...] A whole city gets burnt 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.’ He also tells the reader why he has decided to construct Slaughterhouse 5 in this way: ‘the irony is so great’.

Meta fiction is self-conscious, and throughout his novel Vonnegut shows self-consciousness when writing about writing. He admits that he was wrong to think that it would be easy to write a war-novel about his WW2-experience: ‘When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I’d seen.’ This may be the reason as to why Slaughterhouse 5 is a fictional story about Billy Pilgrim instead of being Vonnegut’s memoir. He also shows self-consciousness when he admits that ‘It’s so short and jumbled and jangled, […] because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.’ There is in fact not much about Dresden and the bombing in Vonnegut’s novel, and maybe the above quote is why; perhaps he finds it too difficult to write about.

Approximately two thirds in, Vonnegut introduces himself, himself the author, to the reader: ‘An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said. “There they go, there they go.” […] That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.’ Since this is all the reader ever gets to hear about Vonnegut, he has once again paused his story to stress that what the reader is reading is a fictional novel, not a memoir of his Dresden-experience.

In conclusion, Vonnegut’s self-conscious way of writing about writing, and his self-provided critique of his novel’s construction, makes Slaughterhouse 5 a metafictional novel. In addition, his self-conscious authorial interruptions also explain why he has written Slaughterhouse 5 the way he has. He informs the reader himself: He realized that he was incapable of reporting what he had seen and he thought he was never going to finish his book. Slaughterhouse 5 is most likely, as Vonnegut puts it himself, the ‘failure’ of a historical memoir.
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