Slaughterhouse-Five | book review


Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Series: n/a
Publisher: Delacorte Publishing
Publication Date: 1969
Genre(s): Sci-fi, Historical fiction, Satire

Opening Line:

All this happened, more or less.

The Synopsis

Billy Pilgrim is going to school to become an optometrist when he is drafted into the Army during World War II. He’s a weak, funny-looking young man who is captured behind enemy lines and becomes a prisoner of war. He winds up in Dresden and experiences the massacre of 130,000 people, but luckily survives and eventually goes home. He becomes an optometrist, marries the daughter of the school’s founder, and winds up having two children. On the night of his daughter’s wedding, Billy claims to have been abducted by Tralfamadorians, an alien species who take Billy to their planet and display him in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians give Billy a lot of insight into time and the workings of the universe. When Billy eventually goes back to Earth, he begins to experience his life in random parts and pieces — he is transported through time to various times in his life, experiencing them over and over again. But there’s much more to it than that.

The Plot

First of all, let me just say that you’ll never read a book quite like this one. The story is told primarily in third-person, excluding the first chapter. Chapter One is kind of like a preface to the book. Though it could be considered a fictional first-person narrator, it seems most likely to me that it’s a preface narrated by Vonnegut himself. In fact, in a couple places throughout the novel, there will be a piece of dialogue from a soldier, and the narrator will say, “That was I. That was me.” Vonnegut was in Dresden during the bombings, so I believe this to be his way of including himself in this semi-fictionalized story. But anyway, the rest of the novel is told in third-person, focusing on Billy Pilgrim and his travels through time. The novel is not structured in linear storytelling, but rather is like a montage of moments sewn together to form the tapestry of Billy’s life. The reader is taken from one moment in Billy’s adult life to his first moments of life. The novel is jumbled and scattered, just like Billy’s brain. It’s very interesting to read and for some may be hard to follow, but it’s quite beautiful to see all these moments of this man’s life thrown at you in quick bursts. It cranks the novel’s pace up a bit and keeps it interesting. It was a little hard for me to get into this novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes I’m a little iffy with postmodern texts, but this one turned out to be worth my time. Though the plot is strange, it is thought-provoking, sad, and brutally honest.

The Characters

The main character of this novel, as mentioned, is Billy Pilgrim. He’s nothing special in the war — just a weak American who gets lucky. But he is certainly the most interesting character. All the boy wanted to do was grow up and become an optometrist, but instead he was drafted into the war and witnessed many horrible deaths and tragedies. Then he goes and gets himself abducted (supposedly), traveling through time endlessly. The narrator of this novel is obviously unreliable, so it’s hard to be sure whether Billy was abducted or if Billy is simply suffering from a case of PTSD. This has surely been argued, but I have not had time to read up on it yet. Whatever the case, I felt enormous sympathy for this man — his parents die, his wife dies, his father-in-law dies in a plane crash that Billy himself somehow survives, and he witnesses the death not only of many fellow imprisoned soldiers, but the massive slaughter of 130,000 people. This is why I’m inclined to think Billy had PTSD and simply imagined the whole alien abduction thing. Plus, one of Kilgore’s books is suspiciously similar to Billy’s abduction experience. There are a lot of little hints that I like to think support my theory, but at the same time, I am also a huge fan of aliens and science fiction, so it’s fun to believe that story, as well. Nevertheless, Billy is an interesting character to follow, especially after he learns from the Tralfamadorians. His theories and ideologies are intriguing. Because he think that people never actually die, they just simply exist in another moment in time, he is so nonchalant and desensitized to death. “So it goes” is his response to every death and misfortune in the novel. It’s written 106 times and is his passive-agressive “I can’t do anything about it and neither can you” response to all the negative things in life. But it makes sense, seeing as he believes that we never really die. I could go on and on, but there are other characters in the novel. A lot of them, actually, but Vonnegut says otherwise:

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.

But Edgar Derby was a character. Apparently, he became one when he spoke out against a Nazi shortly before the bombing of Dresden. Derby was a middle-aged high school teacher who seemed to understand the effects of war. Throughout the novel, Billy constantly refers to him as “poor old Edgar Derby” and things of that nature. He mentions that Derby will die even at the first mention of him. Deaths in novels usually hurt my soul, but because Vonnegut completely dehumanizes and warns us of all the deaths in advance, it didn’t affect me much, which I think was his point. There are a lot of deaths in war, yet we are hardly affected by them and continue living our daily lives. I was awaiting Derby’s death throughout a large portion of the book, and when it finally happens, it is a brief mention followed by “so it goes.” Well, so it goes. Before I move on, I must at least mention Paul Lazzaro, the creepiest character in this novel. Lazzaro likes to kill his enemies and he enjoys revenge. According to him, it is “the sweetest thing there is.” The fact that he actually kills Billy years after the war simply because Roland Weary blames Billy for his death is insane. Not to mention the disgusting, heartbreaking part where we have to read about Lazzaro’s insane killing of a dog. I think I literally cringed. What a sick, cruel man. But that’s war. That’s man. So it goes.

The Writing

This is my first novel by Vonnegut and, according to Wikipedia, it is considered to be his most famous work. His writing gave me a Hemingway vibe, kind of flashbacks to A Farewell to Arms, but still drastically different. I really enjoyed Vonnegut’s style of writing and the way he structured this novel — I liked that it reminded me of a montage in a film. I also liked his repetition of words and phrases, such as “so it goes” and others. Slaughterhouse-Five is an interesting take on war, time, life, and death. Sometimes I honestly think that we are all stuck in a time loop because of how often I experience déjà vu. Or maybe I’m just crazy. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful to my roommate for lending me her copy and encouraging me to read this novel. It was different, but good. I think if you have a lot to say about a novel after reading it, it is certainly worthy of your time and praise, even if you didn’t like it very much. Lucky for me, I actually enjoyed this novel a great deal.

My Rating

4.5 star

Favorite Quote(s) [which I legitimately have too many of, so I’ll try to condense it]: “All time is time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

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