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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

December 14, 2015


I tried an experiment with this book. There is a new audiobook version out with James Franco narrating, so I tried to listen and read this book at the same time. Doing it literally simultaneously was difficult (I later read that experiments have been conducted confirming that it’s harder to read when someone is reading to you). But I did like being able to switch back and forth, go back and read sections in the book after I’d listened to them during my commute, etc.

I’ve read Vonnegut’s Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Nobody writes quite like him. His novels are absurdist and surreal, poetic and ironic and sharply insightful. That said, although this one is considered his classic, it’s not my favorite. Because of the setting and the anti-war POV of a soldier, it reminded me of Catch-22. I could connect more with Catch’s Yossarian than I could with Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim jumps through time, taking us with him from scene to scene. Some are flashbacks of his time in the war. He was a Chaplain’s Assistant, captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and transported eventually to Dresden, where he survived the firebombing by hiding in a meat locker in a slaughterhouse (this part of the story is based on Vonnegut’s actual experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombings). The story jumps to Billy’s life after the war, and to his time as a zoo exhibit on Tralfamadore, a distant planet.

It is very random and strange, as is life. The characters and plotlines loop through and circle back, some left unresolved, some echoing through the novel. In the opening chapter, the narrator gives an overview of what’s to come but apologizes: “It is so short and jumbled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Many people do not know, he says, that Dresden was worse than Hiroshima.

The narrator is unreliable, suffering from PTSD after the war, so the reader does not know how much he can be trusted. There is a good chance he lost his mind in Dresden and now we are just along for the ride. Certainly, his claims of being abducted by aliens and forced to mate with a porn star in an interplanetary zoo make you think that he’s come unmoored. But there is truth in the strangest corners of the novel. Observations about human nature, about American attitudes, about the value of life. As is repeated 106 times throughout the novel whenever a life is lost (in the Tralfamadorian custom), “So it goes.” It is a famous line, a detached shrug that speaks to the randomness of events, the inexplicable twists of fate and the fragility of life. Only a master like Vonnegut could weave those kinds of truths into a tapestry so insane.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2015 6:57 am

    I honestly am ashamed I haven’t read this book yet!

  2. December 18, 2015 12:56 pm

    Good review. I quite liked Slaughterhouse-Five. Yet to read any other Vonnegut.

  3. December 20, 2015 5:03 am

    I read it years ago as a teenager and really liked it back then. When I tried to read it again few months ago I just couldn’t get through first pages. I wonder if I changed and my time to read this book again has passed or if I’m just more tired and find the form more challenging. Maybe I’ll try again. Thanks for your review!

    • December 20, 2015 6:13 am

      Thanks for the comment. I was just last night looking through my list of favorite books and wondering how different that list would be if I went back and re-read them all now. Many of the books on that list I haven’t read in over a decade. I’m sure my tastes are different now. Funny how that happens.

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