I hadn’t intended to post a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) since I technically first read it almost fifteen years ago, but the lapse of time between readings has allowed me to have a fresh perspective on it as if I’d only just read it for the first time. Typically, I avidly share my thoughts on books that are either remarkably good or unbelievably horrible; Slaughterhouse-Five (which I’ll shorten to SF from here) falls into the former category.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007), who looks like the distant cousin of Albert Einstein, is commonly considered one of the greatest American authors, and if you’ve read SF you’d probably agree. Also known for Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), Vonnegut is a master satirist who wrote fiction that highlights social issues in America that still resonate among contemporary readers. Common themes in his books include but are not limited to increased dependence on technology, exploitation of natural resources, dystopian societies, differences in individual perceptions, and mental illness–but rather than preach to the reader, he uses fiction to illustrate the shortcomings of American society.
SF presents itself as a firsthand account of the capturing of fictional narrator Billy Pilgrim after the Battle of the Bulge and subsequently the American bombing of Dresden, Germany, which took place in World War II. Slaughterhouse-Five serves as only the partial title of the book. In fact, the full title of the book is:
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.
The frame story begins with a primary narrator, presumably Vonnegut himself, discussing the difficulties he is having in trying to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, particularly the perspective of one of the few individuals to have survived the bombing from the ground: Billy Pilgrim. The rest of the book follows Billy as he is captured by Nazis as a prisoner of war and transported to Dresden to be a laborer until the war is over, at which point the prisoners expect to go home. Interestingly, Vonnegut was a POW and experienced the Dresden bombing from the ground, so one is left to wonder to what extent the material presented is factual and to what extent it’s fictional; based on interviews, Vonnegut was quite accurate in his depictions of Nazi Germany and the war experiences in Slaughterhouse-Five, which means that Vonnegut used his own experiences in a fictional narrative. The carnage is so vividly realistic in places that it would be hard to imagine anyone making it up. [See Vonnegut’s Wikipedia entry for more on this.]
However, referring to the extended title above, you’ll likely notice the last bit which refers to ‘flying saucers’ and the alien planet of Tralfamadore. This is not a joke thrown onto the end of the title to keep the reader on his/her toes; rather, as the book progresses from Billy’s capture to his final days in Dresden as he digs through debris for survivors of the bombing, Billy is described as believing he’s been abducted by aliens in his, specifically ones from the planet of Tralfamadore.
As a result of Billy’s abduction–which the reader is left to decide if a figment of Billy’s imagination or ‘true’ relative to the book–Billy is able to travel through time, thus making the events described outside Germany and WWII nonlinear. Specifically, Billy tends to “travel” during times of distress, and even though Billy’s abduction doesn’t take place until many years after the war, he is “unstuck” in time throughout his whole life. For example, after Billy has been captured, a German photographer asks Nazi soldiers to reenact the capturing of American soldiers by beating Billy as the photographer takes pictures; however, as Billy is beaten, he “travels” to his honeymoon several years later, and then “travels” back to Dresden shortly after his beating. This continues throughout the book with Billy intermittently reliving periods in his youth, his time as an exhibit in a Tralfamadorian zoo with a famous actress who was also abducted, and even up to his death.
It might sound like I’ve completely spoiled the plot, but what I’ve described barely scratches the surface.
SF is a very rich book, and the experience of reading it is just as important if not more important than the plot. Vonnegut writes with such intricate, purposeful nonchalance and ease that it would make any aspiring writer envious. I don’t typically enjoy war stories, but WWII is tertiary to everything else going on in the book, and Billy Pilgrim is hardly the quintessential soldier; Billy Pilgrim could be described as an optimistic fatalist as a result of his “time traveling,” since he knows the course of his entire life at all points in the novel, including the exact time and means of his death.
Essentially, the book and Billy Pilgrim himself are both too complex for me to explain thoroughly without quadrupling the length of this post, and if I did that then the book would be far less fun to read for those who haven’t yet read it. I also won’t explain the meaning of the book’s shorthand title (Slaughterhouse-Five) since it’s pretty significant in more than one period of time Billy experiences over the course of the book. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book anymore enthusiastically.
My next Vonnegut read will be Breakfast of Champions; I believe I’m in the early 100s. Slaughterhouse-Five was the only one of his books I’d read, and even though I hardly remembered much more than a prisoner-of-war plot and an alien abduction, I look forward to getting that fresh outlook one can only get with the first read of a book.
So it goes.