#23 – Slaughterhouse Five Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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I should probably be clear about this from the very start: Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers of all time and Slaughterhouse Five is probably the best book he’s ever written in my humble opinion – and if that clouds my review in any way, well…so it goes. Blending equal amounts humor, history and absurdist fantasy, the book amounts to nothing less than a treatise on free will, the nature of the universe and the inevitability of human conflict. It is thought provoking, side-splittingly funny and eminently readable, while also being an unflinching look at one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. Not many authors can juggle this many themes and topics together in one book (all while using a non-linear narrative), but Vonnegut is definitely one who can. Now that I think about it, Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the first book to get me interested in Science Fiction – and to make me realize that events in a novel don’t necessarily have to be realistic to make profound statements about the realities of the human condition.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary: Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death) recounts various moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim, a reluctant soldier during World War II. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the narrative skips around to various moments in Billy’s life out of chronological order. Vonnegut describes him as being “unstuck in time,” uncertain as to which moment in his life he will be “re-living” next. During the course of the novel, we see Billy as a German prisoner being held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden (during the Bombing of Dresden), as a captive of an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore who exhibit him as part of their zoo along with a porn actress, as a married man in post-war America, and even during his death. The totality of his experiences, along with a revelation by the Tralfamadorians about the 4 dimensional nature of the universe, eventually leads Billy to accept the predetermined nature of his own life (and that of a humanity that believes foolishly in free-will). While the book may be consider an “Anti-War” novel, it could just as easily be classified as an “Inevitability of War” book, as Billy’s reaction to some of the novels most disturbing revelations about death and the nature of mortality is the oft-repeated phrase…so it goes.

The pivotal event in the novel is the now-infamous firebombing of the city of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force in 1945. Vonnegut himself was actually a German prisoner of war during the bombing and was forced to help dispose of the bodies after the attack was over. The profound meaninglessness of the bombing in the overall scheme of the war along with the astronomically high number of civilian casualties had a profound affect on him, and the reality of that experience can be felt distinctly throughout the book. It is inevitable that Billy Pilgrim is often seen as an extension of Vonnegut himself, even though the voice of “Vonnegut” the narrator also makes brief appearances at various points in the novel. One of his other alter-egos, struggling Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout, also makes a cameo, along with a few other characters that would become or had been characters in other of his novels, including Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Eliot Rosewater.

Slaughterhouse-Five Review: While Slaughterhouse-Five is often accused of being “Fatalistic” and that Vonnegut seems resigned to the atrocities of man as pre-determined and inevitable (as well as being frequently censored due to its “obscene” content and irreverence when talking about issues that are often cloaked in solemnity and reverence), it is also one of the best examples of how post-modern novelists often try to examine the absurdity of our search for meaning and transcendence in the face of such blatant assaults on our notions of decency and human compassion. To me, Vonnegut isn’t telling us that war is a fact of life that we should just accept. Instead, he is showing us the ways in which we attempt to rationalize and normalize these experiences so as not to be overcome by their inherent meaninglessness. And the fact that he is able to do this while at the same time being a ruthlessly funny and compelling storyteller is a testament to his ability as a writer and social satirist. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are a fan of Science Fiction or not.

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September 8, 2010

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