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'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut (Book Review)

Andrew reviews books and occasionally movies for online blogs and print magazines.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007)

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007)

Kurt Vonnegut and a Basic Introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut sets out by telling us that everything in Slaughterhouse-Five did happen, more or less. Especially those parts covering the war. That's the second world war, specifically, the bombing of the German city of Dresden on the night of 13th February 1945.

The author was actually there but somehow managed to survive what is believed to be one of the most vengeful acts of war ever perpetrated from the air. Full of innocent evacuees, estimates of the dead range from 50,000 to 135,000.

You can imagine that a young, impressionable 23-year-old from Indiana, already a prisoner of war, would have been traumatised to hell and back by such an event. The fact that Vonnegut was fluent in German—both his parents came originally from Germany in 1855—only adds to the feeling that this book was partly written in blood. He couldn't help but write Slaughterhouse 5.

Is this why he co-titled it The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death?

Why Slaughterhouse-Five?

It's ironic that Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, came out of the firebombing of Dresden unscathed because he was based in an old city slaughterhouse, building No 5, Schlachthof-funf in German, which happened to have extra strong cellar walls.

Out of death comes life. You may want to watch an excellent movie of the book Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim's Existential Issues

This is the story of Billy Pilgrim, war veteran, victim of extreme trauma, wealthy optometrist and father who just happens to have a restless, fractured mind. His consciousness floats through time: past, present and future. War is the past, his family life present, his future in the hands of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Vonnegut's narrative skips between and cuts across these contrasting scenes, reflecting the random, fragmented nature of mental breakdown. You may have to acclimatise to the technique but isn't that just the way with the human condition? Billy Pilgrim has lost control over his faculties; the reader is challenged to stay with the narrative.

I found the author's approach fascinating. Reading the book was like experiencing three different plays. On one stage you're at home in the 1960s with the affluent eye specialist who just happens to be married to an overweight but rich woman, Valencia.

Next, you're on board a flying saucer, abducted by aliens who want to put you in a zoo. Then you're deep in war-torn Germany, 1945, facing starvation and death.

The writing is strong enough to hold all three scenarios in place but you may have to hang on tight because occasionally the set changes in an instant.

So It Goes

What I love about this book is the fact that it doesn't offer any answer to the question of 'Why do humans make war?'

There are clues along the way. There are anecdotes and funny asides. The author's personal experience weaves in and out of the story until, gradually, it works you up into the realms of morality, metaphysics and what it is to be a frail human.

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As for the war, you're free to make your own mind up. Vonnegut isn't telling us that war is immoral, neither is he suggesting that war is necessary. He's simply telling a story that is part real part imaginary.

It ends with a bird giving out a Poo-tee-tweet once the massacre is over, and what sort of reply can you give to a small bird that survives a firebombing? Perhaps because of the way it's written and devised it asks more questions about the human condition than many other longer, more conventional books about war.

There is no shortage of characters either. There's Weary, a fellow American prisoner of war, 'filled with a tragic wrath' who dies of gangrene in a boxcar en route to the camp. He tells everyone the cause of his death is the fault of none other than Billy Pilgrim.

In that same boxcar is Paul Lazzarro, one of the meanest characters ever to grace the pages of a book. Perhaps war has made him that way, perhaps war saved him from himself?

That's the question.

Montana Wildhack In An Alien Zoo

When Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, he ends up in a geodesic dome, on show to the Zirconians. At first, he's alone, naked, like Adam. The onlookers love to watch him pee. Then Montana the porno Queen shows up, a voluptuous dream model, and Billy's life changes forever and ever and ever.

Oh, if only Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout and William Blake could see him now. Perhaps they can! Perhaps they all have knowledge of the 4th dimension?


Zircon 212

This is a book I needed to put down occasionally. I had to take a break, step to one side and give the images time to subside. There is a lot to contend with. Vonnegut is both extremely dark and absurd.

For example, in chapter 5 Billy Pilgrim tells the aliens, the Tralfamadorians, that he is from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter:

'And I have lit my way in a prison at night with candles from the fat of human beings who were butchered by the brothers and fathers of those schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower in Dresden.'

Little wonder that Billy Pilgrim wants to escape into a fantasy world. His wartime experiences constantly bubble up and overpower the present, and it's this ongoing battle that Vonnegut handles with such skill and imagination.

The aliens of Zircon 212 are totally baffled by Billy's descriptions of the human struggle on Earth, for they see life in four dimensions—you cannot create the future for it is already there, as permanent as the past, structured to happen as it does. Why exert free will when you know how the universe ends? So it goes.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter from Kurt Vonnegut

The Verdict

Slaughterhouse-Five for me is a stunning book. It's not an easy read because it portrays quite vividly the brutality and absurdity of war. It moves quickly, 'travelling in time' from one scene to another.

From the invented Ilium in New York state, Billy's family home, to a corpse-laden street in Germany, to an Adam and Eve image on an alien planet. You have to learn to live with switches in time, just like the protagonist Billy Pilgrim.

Yet it can leave you feeling hollow, upset and disenchanted. What's the point of violence on such a scale? Why the meaningless slaughter? In war, you do what's necessary to survive. Don't you? The British know-how. In war you make sure you shave each day, stand upright and never stop talking! And you must never steal teapots from anyone or you'll end up getting shot.

It will make you laugh. It will spark your emotions. You won't know what to think about Billy Pilgrim. Hate him, feel sorry for him, despise him, love him.

If the aim of a writer is to get you to read and keep on re-reading their book then Vonnegut has clearly achieved his goal. I'll be returning to this book, no doubt. When? That's the question

First edition with signature. Published 1969 by Delacorte.

First edition with signature. Published 1969 by Delacorte.

A Timeless Classic

In Billy Pilgrim, there is both a helpless victim and an anti-hero 'unstuck in time.' He is subject to bouts of mental instability, he weeps quietly so no one will notice and he takes off on flights of wondrous fancy to a place where he can at least try to reconstruct the nature of time.

Vonnegut reveals to us a character slowly coming to terms with an illness that has no cure, the cause of which is a real event: the massacre of mostly innocent people.

It could be said that Billy Pilgrim the human being died at that time and a new disengaged personality took over, one who wouldn't ever be able to reconcile the future with the past, or get a grip on the here and now. An existentialist dilemma if ever there was one.

© 2013 Andrew Spacey


Adriene Joyce from New Jersey on February 27, 2013:

This is an excellent analysis of a undisputable classic. S5 certainly ranks among my favorite novels of all time. I'm looking forward to reading your other hubs about literary classics.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 29, 2013:

Much appreciate the visit and comments and vote bethperry. Thank you. Billy Pilgrim is mixed up, traumatised, re-inventing himself! Now I want to read it again!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 29, 2013:

Good point bethperry, thank you for the visit and vote, appreciated. I love the mix of reality and fantasy and the suspense and fluidity within Pilgrim's mind? Beautifully handled.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 29, 2013:

Thanks for the visit Alice. The thing that gets me about this book is the fact that there is no point made about the war. We have to try and fathom out its effects, perhaps like the author himself.

As a drama teacher I love the three tiered approach and the non linear timeline.

Beth Perry from Tennesee on January 29, 2013:

I read this book for the first time when I was a teen, and absolutely fell in love with the story. It is tragic, it is humorous and it is thought-provoking without ever once stooping to the levels of condescending or preachy.

You've hit on points that I feel many modern professional critics simply miss. I suspect a great part of this is to the fact readers today have been conditioned to leave it to the author to tell them how they should react to a subject matter. That unspoken sense of responsibility scares them, as does breaking free of linear thinking.

Great review, and I thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks so much for posting; voting up!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 29, 2013:

Hey thanks for the visit and comment Mike. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading it again very soon.

Alice Frances Wickham from London on January 29, 2013:

Interesting review of Vonnegut, I found his book somewhat vacuous and repetitive, stylistically dull, and politically shallow, despite all the post-modernist hoo-haw.

I am not sure the book makes any valid point about the effects of war on the human psyche, I think it makes a point about one human being, who happens to whinge a lot, there were worse atrocities than the destruction of Dresden, terrible as that was, Vonnegut places the imperative of art and style over human lives

How strange he took such considered offence against the burning of his book, yes it was brutal and perhaps 'un-American' but why get so twisted up over it, if he saw the war, surely this would have been a drop in the ocean of human ignorance, the letter of outrage just makes him look like a prat

Mike Robbers from London on January 29, 2013:

Masterpiece!! Vonnegut was a great writer, I've also read a small book of his titled 'Timequake.'

Thanks for the presentation, well written and to the point :)

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