Classic Literature / Highly Recommended / Historical Fiction / Science Fiction

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Normally, if I don’t understand a book I’m not going to enjoy it.  I also don’t like writing that’s weird for the sake of being weird.  Slaughterhouse Five was different.  It’s funny and strange and tragic and an easy read, all at the same time.

Slaughterhouse Five is at first told from the point of view of a narrator (who is basically Vonnegut himself) who was an American soldier in World War II and has spent the rest of his years trying to write a book about the bombing of Dresden.  After returning from the war he feels that no one understood the magnitude of this event, which actually resulted in more casualties in a day than Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  The narrator admits that the book is a failure.  And it is, since the narrator wanted to convey the scope of destruction and casualties in Dresden and can’t because there’s no logical way to convey such a thing.

Instead, this book within a book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who is a soldier in World War II, but also an optometrist, a husband, a father, an optometrist, a time traveler, and a friend of the Tralfamadorians.

It begins with “Listen:  Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

During WWII, Pilgrim is captured by the Germans and is a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden.  He frequently travels to other points in time in his life, from his childhood to his death.  On the evening of his daughter’s wedding, he’s captured by aliens and forced to live for years as a zoo exhibit.

What Billy learns during these adventures is that people die but that death is just a moment in the continuum of time.

”When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”

Every time death is mentioned, he writes “And so it goes.”  Death is inevitable and we are always alive in some times and dead in others.  Which is a comforting thought but I don’t think Vonnegut means it that way, since he’s trying to convince us of the horror of wartime casualties.

Pilgrim is a ridiculously passive character.  The war happens to him but he won’t assist in any way.  When he holds up his companions, he asks them to leave him behind.  When they won’t, he earns their hatred.  In the prison camp, that hatred results in one of his companions asking another soldier, on his deathbed, to avenge his death by killing Pilgrim.  And so it goes.

This book was an interesting contrast to the book I read before it, also about World War II, The Invisible Bridge.  That was a tough book to read, and you end up feeling pretty hopeless about humanity.  This book was very different.  Vonnegut describes World War II with simple, direct prose and sense of humor.  Vonnegut makes the war ridiculous, as he makes most of life ridiculous.  For example, when Pilgrim is captured he’s forced to wear a shrunken old coat that splits when he puts it on, and everyone laughs at him.  There is violence and death in war but these things are not the focus of this story.  Instead there is indignity, humiliation, and helplessness.

This book, which was published in 1969 and is based on Vonnegut’s own experience in Dresden, is considered to be a pacifist reaction to the war in Vietnam.  Vonnegut likens being anti-war to “anti-glacier” meaning you’re opposed to something you can’t change.  In the early part of the book, a woman becomes upset with him for writing a war story, because she says he’ll inevitably glamorize the war and thus justify more wars in the future.  In the book the narrator/author promises he will not do that, which raises the question of whether popular culture influences future events, and whether a single book can have that kind of influence, which contrasts with the fatalism of the Tralfamadorians.

The book accomplishes at least one of its aims, in that I now know more about Dresden than I did before reading the book.

One thing that struck me about this book is the idea that we go back to moments in our lives over and over again.  The narrator/author spends his entire life obsessed with his experience in Dresden.  Pilgrim’s time travel, which seems to occur at particularly difficult moments, suggests that while he can escape the war temporarily, he can’t escape it permanently.  This may be a work of science fiction but it’s true that mentally we don’t live our lives in a linear way; we all have ages and events that we return to again and again, or that emotionally we never get past.

The blurring of fiction and nonfiction also made this an interesting read.  The first chapter seems to be written by the author, but we don’t really know.  It’s written with dialogue as if it’s fiction, yet it’s about the writing of the book.  The author says “most of this really happened” and of course doesn’t tell us what is real and what isn’t. Time travel or flashbacks and hallucinations? When Pilgrim starts telling the world about the Tralfamadorians, no one believes him, but he talks about it anyway.

Since I don’t want to be the final word on this book I only partially understood (and should read again), here is a helpful description from Goodreads:

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you–Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so 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…” Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy–and humor.

3 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Great review! You make me want to go back and read Slaughterhouse again.

    When you try to describe this book (or really any Vonnegut) to someone unfamiliar with him, he always seems to come off sounding pretentious and difficult. OK, well that’s what happens when I try to describe him. But you’re right, he is a simple, funny, tragic author.

  2. Pingback: The Best Books I Read in 2010, and a few other lists « The Book Stop

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