Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse fiveSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Goodreads Description: Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “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.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor.

My Review:

I read this book in May 2013 (I really need to get better about posting timely reviews), and while it’s been criticized as being choppy, disjointed, all over the place, and unintelligible, I came away with a profound sense of the disastrous effects of war on the human psyche.

The book is based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war where he, by a strange twist of fate, survived the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, was a prisoner of war held captive in an underground meat locker of a slaughter house, Slaughterhouse 5, that is.  In a reversal of fortune, his prison had become his salvation, delivering him from an apocalyptic scene of unimaginable destruction when the city of Dresden was almost obliterated from the earth. In the aftermath, his surviving captors forced him to perform the harrowing task of recovering and burning the bodies of the deceased.

The book isn’t written in chronological order. Instead, it jumps forward and backward in time, jarringly, to various periods in the main character’s life including time spent with aliens on the planet Tralfamadore. Yes, aliens.Was the character abducted by aliens? Did he become unstuck in time? Or were these just coping mechanisms in the aftermath of war?

Reading this book reminded me a little of someone who had experienced psychological trauma so severe that their personality split as a means to deal with reality. This condition, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is a trauma-based disorder. It’s interesting that PTSD, common among war veterans, is also a trauma based disorder, and considering Vonnegut was a war veteran my perception of the novel may not be far off the mark. Vonnegut himself described the book as “so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

When you’ve experienced atrocities so unimaginable, it’s hard to make sense of anything and it’s easy to understand how Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck in time” and found refuge in another world. And so it goes…

Opening Line:

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

Memorable quotes:

“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

 “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

4 of 5 stars