Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

I’ve read the book last week and I can’t say I liked it. One of the most widely read anti-war novels of all time made little to no sense for me.
The timelines jump from side to side and all I can think of is that the guy who must have written in might have been cray-cray.
The story jumps from the bombardment of Dresden in the Second World War to an optician and then to an alien zoo exhibit who was shagging a movie star with his massive dong for the entertainment of four-dimensional beings.

The Story

Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. That is, he does not live from second to second as most of us do, but instead jumps to the future, and then back to the past, and then again to the present (whatever that means—it can be hard to judge what the “present” is when you’re unstuck in time). Along the way, he fights in the Battle of the Bulge, lives in a German POW camp in Dresden right before it is bombed by the Allies (something which Kurt Vonnegut actually lived through), and is kidnapped by aliens called “Tralfamadorians” who both explain to him the nature of reality and fate.

On Tralfamadore, Billy was introduced to the revelation that all things happen exactly as they do, and that they will always happen that way, and that they will never happen any other way. Meaning, time is all at once. The aliens, incidentally, admit to destroying the universe in a comical accident fated far into the future, and they’re very sorry, but so it goes.

The Tralfamadorians also “force” him to breed with also-abducted movie star Montana Wildhack. Through all of this, Billy learns the lesson that we cannot escape our fate (as evidenced by the repeated mantra “So it goes”), and that once we accept this truth we can realize that “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” (Both quotes appear regularly through the book.)

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

You’ll either love this book or hate it; there’s really no middle ground. Even the writing style is something that demands either your instant devotion or pure loathing. Because Billy is unstuck in time, the book is non-linear in its narrative structure. We jump from scene to scene and decade to decade with no transition or explanation, and it is only as we get more and more of the book under our belt that the overall picture begins to appear. It’s the equivalent of looking at a quilt one square at a time; only after seeing a good number of squares can you begin to piece together the overall pattern. Which is itself a commentary on how we view life—we rarely get the big picture handed to us in a nice, linear narrative all at once. Instead, something happens, and then something seemingly unrelated happens, and then before we know it it’s Monday again and we have to go back to work.

Only in exceptional circumstances do we actually see where the details of our lives fall into line with the grand narrative of human existence.

Vonnegut is telling us jokes about the fire-bombing of Dresden. Which is inappropriate, to say the least. If you’re not familiar with this event, it was the massive revenge-bombing of a German city by the Allied powers. In other words, Vonnegut takes the one war where most of us agree about who was good and who was evil, highlights one of the worst things that the “good” guys did in the war, and then tells jokes about it. Like I said—inappropriate.
And yet, how else can we respond to an event like the bombing of Dresden? Or the Vietnam War (presumably Vonnegut’s primary target)? Or, well, any of the countless other atrocities human beings have poured out upon each other throughout human history? Slaughterhouse-Five suggests that the most we can do is observe that this is how the world works—how it must work, given the dominance of fate—and then laugh at ourselves, because the alternative is utter despair.


Final Score: 1/5

This book is the literary equivalent of easy, empty calories and heartburn disguised as a full four-course Italian meal. This book is so convinced of its own cleverness and depth and meaningfulness, but is utterly lacking in all three.

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