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Literary Gimmicks in Famous Novels: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

February 28, 2022

Nobody really cares what I think about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s considered an American classic, and my opinion isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. I’m not even sure what my opinion is anyway.

Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1962, and my daughter had to read it in high school a couple years ago. I got a little jealous. Slaughterhouse-Five has fewer than 50,000 words. I wish I had been forced to read novels with fewer than 50,000 words when I was in in high school.

When I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut last week, I was struck by how much the novel relies on literary gimmicks.

I’m not going to summarize Slaughterhouse-Five because you can get that anywhere. I just want to look at a few devices that Vonnegut used and then question how much these gimmicks affected the quality of the book. Since I’m using a couple literary gimmicks in my own novel, I’m analyzing the literary devices some famous authors have used in their most successful books.

Slaughterhouse-Five begins and ends with chapters written from the author’s/narrator’s point-of-view. The author/narrator explains that he’s tried to write a book about his experiences as a POW in Dresden during World War II. The author rambles a little and claims that his book would be a failure.

I’m not sure if having an author/narrator claim that the book would be a failure is a literary device/gimmick or not. It’s similar to dramatic irony; when Vonnegut wrote his book, he didn’t know his novel would be so successful. Or did he?

The bulk of Slaughterhouse-Five, the Billy Pilgrim story, is told out of order because of the Tralfamadorians, aliens with an ability to see dimensions that humans are incapable of seeing/experiencing. I admit, I prefer linear stories. I believe there’s the possibility that time isn’t linear and that I’m simply not capable of seeing it, but I don’t feel threatened by my inability to see it. I might be better off not being able to see it.

Even if I can’t see time as non-linear in reality, I can see it in fiction, and the out-of-sequence storytelling seems to work in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The phrase “And so it goes” is repeated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five and is used whenever death is mentioned. A lot of readers get annoyed at the repetition, but repetition is a common literary device when writers want to emphasize a point, so I don’t have a problem with it. And I don’t have a problem with readers who get annoyed by it either.

“And so it goes” is like a literary ear worm. Even though I first read Slaughterhouse-Five decades ago, the phrase “And so it goes” still pops up in my head whenever I hear about death. The phrase popped up in my head a lot in 2021. I guess that shows how effective of a device/gimmick it was. But it can still be annoying.

What would Slaughterhouse-Five be like without the literary gimmicks? If I had more time (or if I cared enough), I’d take the Billy Pilgrim bulk of the book, chop up all the non-linear scenes, and then place them in a proper linear timeline. Then I’d chop out all the “And so it goes.” And I’d leave out the author-narrator sections at the beginning and end. And then I’d read the book and see if how much the gimmicks improved the novel.

I’m not saying a gimmick-free Slaughterhouse-Five would suck, but it probably would have been pretty bland. It probably wouldn’t be considered an American literary classic. I think Billy Pilgrim would have been less of a compelling character without the time traveling. Plus, I like the aliens. Without the aliens, you can’t have the time-traveling. Without the aliens and time traveling, Slaughterhouse-Five becomes just another book about a veteran with PTSD.

Now I’m curious how much Kurt Vonnegut relied on literary gimmicks in his other novels. I’ve read Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, but I don’t remember anything about them, so I can’t make the call. Maybe I’ll read them again to find out.

Or better yet, maybe somebody else can tell me. What do you think? Would Slaughterhouse-Five be the same without the gimmicks. Did Kurt Vonnegut rely too much on gimmicks when he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five? Did Kurt Vonnegut’s literary gimmicks hide his mediocre (or outright bad) writing?

  1. “Gimmicks” is, of course, a loaded word, pejorative, “cheap tricks,” say in contrast to “devices” or structural support or a Greek chorus or some such. In Vonnegut’s day, his repeated quips made him hip, sassy, cool, droll, fun to read, on the same shelf as supercharged Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. They were never dull, archly serious, overtly pedantic. Oh, maybe strike the last item, in retrospect. But somehow we always wanted another hit. I don’t mean that in the best-seller sense. No, that would be a sell-out. (Maybe that’s the crux of the issue you’re raising.)
    As much as I loved Vonnegut’s work, especially Rosewater, I’m surprised how little I remember all these years later, apart from the asterisk, just don’t ask me which novel that punctuated.
    By the way, I am taken with the ideal of a short novel, though obtaining that can be elusive.
    One facet to consider is the way Vonnegut spoke from the Midwest, a region largely ignored or overlooked in American literature, in contrast to New York City mostly Manhattan but rarely Queens or the Bronx. That in itself was a major accomplishment, even if it was from his firehouse on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So it goes.
    Well, his father did run a hardware store and had to sell, uh, useful gimmicks. Drain stoppers, screws, nuts, hammers. (Bang, bang, expletive.)
    It is amazing how much “bad writing” fills “great literature,” or even the New York Times Magazine, as one of my ambitious writing teachers led us to see. (He, too, had his own addiction to cool as in gimmicks.)
    One question you stir up is how much a piece works for the time when it’s published and how much will still work (function) in later eras? And why?
    What did your daughter think of the book, anyway?

    • My daughter didn’t care for Slaughterhouse-Five all that much, but she prefers nonfiction, so I’m not sure how much her opinion reflects how well the novel holds up over time. She says that she likes my book, though. Haha.

  2. I think when it comes to gimmicks, they either bother you or they don’t. It probably depends on the reader’s mindset that day as much as the gimmick itself. As for cutting up timelines, I once reordered (in my head) the sequence of events in the movie Pulp Fiction according to their chronology as opposed to the gimmicky structure, and decided the gimmicky structure was the right call.

  3. I’ve not read a single one of this books, but find this post about the gimmicks used in his work to be fascinating. In retrospect, a lot of gimmicks writers have used have bothered me, but these ones you list seem lighthearted and droll – just enough to catch the reader’s attention.. not quite enough to put a reader off.

    • That’s true; a lot of authors use gimmicks that are unnecessary or make it look like the author is showing off.

      I’ve read a couple books where the authors didn’t use various forms of punctuation. The books were still readable, but the gimmick wasn’t necessary.

  4. I remember the book as being trippy. Whether the jumps in time are a device, gimmick, or trick, authors enjoy twisting up timelines (see A Rose of Emily for one short example). Its twist in this case reflects Billy’s shattered mind and perhaps those of his readers– given the book 1969 debut, on the heels of the summer of love with its drugs and with the biggest protests against Vietnam in the news. Would it be a cheap trick when an author tries to capture a feeling that is difficult to express? Just wondering aloud.

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