Putting the Laughter in Slaughterhouse
by Sara Watkins
There’s a dinky beige bookcase in my room. It sits directly next to the window, it’s flat top level with the sill. It makes a perfect end table for the wooden end table next to my bed. At this point, it’s basically just a mismatched table with shelves, completely filled and overflowing. I’ve always had too many books to shelve let alone count, so when I moved in I made up an order for the books; the top shelf is nonfiction, bottom shelf is fiction, and the weird extra space where the bookcase doesn’t quite meet the ground is oversized. Then, I put all the books in a big pile and sat in the middle of them for a while, because sometimes I get halfway through doing things and then I don’t feel like doing them anymore, especially cleaning. I started looking through all the books.
I collect books like most people collect pocket lint: I never know how much I have until I pull it all out to look at it. Books are way cooler than pocket lint though, especially mine. Most books have a story, that’s kinda the point of a book, but my books are special; they have two stories– the one inside, and the one I create while reading. My copy of my book is instantly more awesome than your copy of that same book because it’s mine. The notes inside it, the memories and sensations, are invaluable to me.
In an act of supreme procrastination, I decided to split the books into favorites based on my new system of of shelve-genres. “The best ones go in the front,” I said to my cat, who was supervising the entire adventure from my bed.
It was tough. Every book I own is a great book, even if I don’t particularly like it. It’s literally the brainchild of some weary author-parent, and I try not judge people’s babies: it’s bad form. That said, some books are more special to me than others because they resonate beyond their stories. I have been fortunate enough to find books that give me goosebumps just to remember. Books whose messages, stories, character, and tone all aligned so perfectly that I, miles apart and years later, thought to myself, “This is important to me.” It’s incredibly gratifying to identify a piece of yourself within someone else’s work.
So, I was sitting there holding a giant scan of Kurt Cobain’s diary when I decided this. Reading his personal journal had left absolutely no impact on my life, so I put it on the bottom of the oversized shelf, face up, directly on the floor. Feeling productive, I put all the books I’d be least likely to reread anytime soon in size order, and then pushed them all the way back to fit the others. The dinky bookcase doesn’t have a back and doesn’t sit quite right under the wall, so when all the books are pushed back, others can be slid in on top of them horizontally. All of the leftover books went in that slot, according to shelf-genre, of course.
Since then, the careful order has descended into chaos. Books are constantly pulled, marked, dog-earred and discarded in passion or in boredom. I knew things were bad when I started reaching for the books in the back, Getting them out was always a huge issue because I had to peek behind the ones in the front to see what was there. Every time, I ended up cross-legged on the carpet in the center of a pile of books. It started happening so often that my cat stopped coming to watch. One particularly bad night, I pulled out the oversized books. I don’t usually read these because they’re super niche: the giant red book copy of Kurt Cobain’s Diary, a large book of concept art for a Japanese manga that reads from right to left, and the hardback edition of a favorite comic arc. In frustration, I thrust my hand back into the shelf and stretched. There, against the wall, a small book that had fallen through the back of the shelf. I pulled it out. It was pocket-sized and red, with a yellow skull on the front. Slaughterhouse Five.
Sweet relief! From the very first time I read the very first page of Slaughterhouse Five in high school, I knew that I was in love. It was and always will be my most favorite book. My boyfriend, a grade above me, had to read it first and I’ll confess, I stole his copy. He kept it in his room, right on his wooden dresser, a red spot in the chlorine-pool blue room. It sat there, bright and bold against his black binder and his gray textbooks. At school, our English classes were in the same room, so every day I’d walk in and see rows of Slaughterhouse Five sitting in the metal cages that extended from the bottom of the blue chairs. I asked the teacher to borrow a copy but there weren’t enough to go around. Even the school library was out of copies. It was like the world was tempting me with an unreadable book, and that only made me more curious.
“Well, how is it?” I asked my boyfriend on the train home one day.
“I haven’t started reading it yet,” he said.
It went on like this for weeks! I’d see it still just sitting there, and I’d ask about it, and he’d answer nonchalantly and change the subject. Finally one day I said, “Are you guys still reading that book in class?”
He laughed but kind of strangled, like this wasn’t the first time today somebody had brought that up, and said, “We were actually supposed to give it back but I keep forgetting .”
“Just give it to me.”
He did! What a present! My goodness, the book did not disappoint. WWII, time travel, and aliens are just the start. What really gets me about Slaughterhouse every time I read it is the narrator. The first and last chapters of the book are told with the Vonnegut as the main character, because this book is semi-autobiographical, meaning it’s mostly true– minus the time travel and aliens, and fictional events. He really was a soldier in WWII, he really was captured by the Germans, he really was held as a POW in a slaughterhouse and he actually was rescued after the bombing of Dresden.
Stylistically speaking, Vonnegut makes a lot of interesting choices that stood out to me immediately; his tone is conversational, his story is discombobulated and out of order, and he uses apostrophes as quotations. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He describes every scene like an omnipresent ghost. Most of the book is harrowing and strange, which I think is one of the larger points of it, but, some of it is downright hilarious.
I mostly read while sitting on the train, with the little red book bent backwards in my hand, a highlighter or a pencil in the other. I’d sit and scribble notes and reactions as stops and times passed unnoticed. One of my favorite, and most marked passages, is when the narrator is describing the main character’s drunken adventure home:
The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.
He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.
“He’s an absolute madman!” I said to my teacher, my boyfriend, my cat, anyone who would listen. “I love it!” Every page offered some new delightful turn of phrase, apropos description, or thought provoking comment. I read it, and reread it, and even did a presentation on it. I vowed to hold onto my copy, filled with my reactions and notes. It was an oath I took seriously. I could be like Billy Pilgrim, depositing myself into random moments of time.
I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen in love with a book, but it can be disastrous. Like a lot of relationships, it’s great until it’s over. When it is, all that’s left is the memory of the anticipation, and of the understanding. You can reread it but you can never get to know the characters quite the same way as the first time. You want more but often, that’s not an option. Slaughterhouse never hurt me like that and it’s probably why I kept it around. Each page was like a long night talking, each chapter was a date. By the time I finished the book, I felt satisfied like good sex and a cigarette. But nothing lasts forever. I guess what happened between us was my fault, because I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to share.
He had a long, boring day of work ahead of him; the kind where there’s no more work to do but no one is allowed to leave, so you sit there and shake your leg like that’ll make the time pass faster.
“I will let you borrow my copy of Slaughterhouse if you want,” I offered so generously.
But my altruistic nature proved to be our downfall: that’s when things fell apart with Slaughterhouse and I. It makes sense, I’ve heard that introducing a third party to a relationship can often cause problems, but I didn’t expect that from them. They stayed together for months.
I’d call my boyfriend, who never stayed in one state for too long, and say, “you’re gonna bring him home to me right?”
“Of course, Sara,” he’d say patiently.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, Sara,” he’d say less patiently.
“You’re not finished with him yet, are you?” I’d ask, jealous and hopeful.
When I went out visit him in whichever city it was that time, we got a hotel room situated far from the downtown area. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I hadn’t brought any books. We hoisted our suitcases onto the big bed with the wallpaper-design sheets and started emptying them out. My boyfriend slid Slaughterhouse from his suitcase and situated it perfectly on the corner of his squat end table, directly under the light.
“You brought it!” I yelled, nearly jumping onto the suitcases to reach for it.
“I did,” he said, “but I was thinking that I’d just hang on to it over here on my side for a while.”
I put my hand to my heart. “Why would you do that?”
“Well… I didn’t finish it.”
“You didn’t…finish…it?” Images of me laying curled up late at night, clutching the red book and my blanket, disappeared as the neurotransmitters in my brain popped and died in disbelief.
He burst out laughing and handed me the book. “I’m just messing with you. That reaction was priceless. Slaughterhouse was great.”
We talked about it for a while, and the whole situation got me so excited that I ended up reading the entire book again that night after he went to bed. I read it later on the plane home, too. It seemed a happy to resolution to my short breakup with Vonnegut. We continued on as if things were the same; my pencil marks still etched the pages, and my highlighted sections still shone, but I noticed the differences too; the extra tear on his back, the fading of his spine, the extra creases in his pages. He was worn and used.
When I got home from that trip, I decided to broaden my options. I collected every book I could find in my house into a giant pile and sorted through all of them. To this day, Slaughterhouse cannot be found. I’ve checked all his hiding places, travel bags and end tables, shelves and crannies. I’ve looked for him often, I’ve looked for him recently, but he does not seem to want to be found. I’ve read other copies of Slaughterhouse, I own an ebook now so this once can’t escape, but it’s not the same. I’m hopeful that one day my copy will turn up, so I can travel through time with Billy Pilgrim again.
Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and EIC of Spoonie Press, a literary magazine for chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is also a big fan of deviating from the norm for her own comfortability and entertainment. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability, MASKS Literary Magazine, Vast Chasm, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Unlikely Stories. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.