As I sat yesterday and watched the Packers and Steelers in this year’s installment of the Super Bowl, I decided it was time to finally write about Slaughterhouse-Five. I finished it early last week but have been avoiding writing about in the blog. I need to as it is part of my reading challenge for this year but I really didn’t have much to say. Reading Vonnegut’s “Children’s Crusade” reminded me of an essay I wrote for a class I sadly had to take my last semester of undergrad. I had avoided Contemporary American Literature successfully up until that point but I needed one last 300 level class to graduate and that was the only one I could fit into my schedule.
I was nervous to hand in my last essay for that class. I basically stated that I didn’t get the contemporary American novel, that in fact I found them ridiculous and a waste of my time to read. Re-reading it for this blog post, I am surprised at my strong language and use of my own voice so much in an essay I was handing to a teacher. It was clear I was frustrated with the contemporary American novel and that it was my last paper ever for my undergraduate career. I sort of threw the rule book out of the window and spoke for myself. For the fun of it, here is part of my opening paragraph:
Contemporary American fiction writers are, in my opinion, a difficult lot. Perhaps
I am too much in love with my Dickens, Brontë, and Austen but I do not understand the
contemporary tendency to write in riddles. However, I was beginning to think this was
simply me not getting the point. These contemporary authors were trying to communicate
the great truths of our century and I am apparently too dense to get the hint. Luckily,
through the help of Tom Wolfe and B.R. Myers, I realized that it was not just me. Indeed,
there is something wrong with the contemporary American writer and the works
produced by him/her. In exploring both Wolfe and Myers’s essays, and applying them to
Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I have come to
the conclusion that contemporary literature has little involvement with the reality we
actually inhabit and that there is little opportunity for the reader to connect to the novels
themselves. The result is literature which makes no sense and has no connection to the
actual reader. The distance installed between novel and reader makes for an unsatisfying
reading experience and a frustrating one as well.
I will spare you all the details of my tirade in the essay but reading Vonnegut I was reminded of this class and its experience. Slaughterhouse-Five was a novel that didn’t seem to have a point; that had useless sentences, ridiculous segways and pointless observations. I had no connection to the characters or the story. The actions they take are unbelievable and just…odd. Like I wondered in my essay four years ago, was this really the American experience of someone, somewhere? I wonder if I just have been too sheltered or had too stereotypical an upbringing to connect with the cynicism and disillusionment of the contemporary American novel. Then again, maybe it’s not just me that reads novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and respond with a shrug and a ‘eh.’
What’s weird about my experience with Slaughterhouse-Five is I enjoyed reading it, I think. I read it in an evening; it held my interest enough to keep reading but it left no lasting impression. I read it and I moved on. I didn’t gain anything from it and I’ll never feel the need to read it again. It was an odd experience. One I think I am heading into a lot in the coming weeks as I attempt to read a bunch of novels I have for some reason always grouped together in my mind. Slaughterhouse-Five was always attached to Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange. We’ll see how I get along with them. After this experience and reminding me of my issues with the ‘contemporary’ American classic, I might try and move along pretty fast.