on 6 February 2012
Slaughterhouse Five is a book that defies a clear and coherent summary, it is hard to pin it on any one thing. On one level it is a book about the fire bombing of Dresden during the climax of the second world war - which the author witnessed first hand during his military service - but on a much larger level it is a twisted science fiction/psychological cross breed about time travel, aliens, philosophy, war, perspective, life and of course death. So it goes. The book easily scores a 5 out of 5 for it's unique writing style, story and approach: it is very readable, and though it's short, it leaves a long lasting impression. I would also say it's a book you could read twice - which is always a good thing - as there is a lot of depth scattered throughout its pages for the readers who like to highlight, take notes and dwell on the book's themes and messages.
Kurt Vonnegut employs a very economical writing style, and relies heavily on symbolism, colours and motifs, but delivers them with short and direct sentences. The author has popularised the saying `So it goes' through Slaughterhouse Five's layers upon layers of (well executed) repetition; these three words hold a certain power in the context of the story, and will no doubt conjure in the reader's mind a fascinating philosophy that underlines the whole book.
The story centers around a time traveling man called Billy Pilgrim who served in the Second World War, witnessed the fire bombing at Dresden, and was abducted by aliens who helped him to understand his time traveling experiences. He also ends up at some point in the novel as a POW in a slaughterhouse - numbered 5, obviously. These are all minor details that I will not expand upon, as you will have to read it for yourself, but rest easy in the comforting knowledge that I am not spoiling the book for you. The story is not written in chronological order and allows you to glimpse at all these occurrences and more very early on in the book. The author, even tells the reader how the book will end at the very beginning.
And so on.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slaughterhouse Five. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has not read it before and I will always hold a special place for it in my bookshelf. :)
on 13 August 2011
The most impressive thing about Slaughterhouse 5 is that Vonnegut's distinctive laconic, sarcastic, and humorous tone of voice is never at the expense of the pathos that emerges from the terrible events he is describing. Rather it reorientates the normal uses of pity, which is to engender, rage, revenge, or to give it its rightful name - patriotism. Rather his wry commentary turns this use on its head by showing that the causes of pitiful human suffering are actually this ridiculous folly of patriotism itself. His character Billy Pilgrim is taken to the alien planet of Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy to see human life in this way, and to see human suffering as the result of unalterable folly. "So it goes" is his catchphrase which sums up this "Tralfamadorian" point of view. When ever Billy reports something has died he adds "So it goes."
Late last month (July 2011) a Missouri school banned the book form their library following a Missouri professor's complaint about its content. In a column for the local paper, Wesley Scroggins wrote that Slaughterhouse 5 "contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The 'f word' is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ."
Should you be worried about whether any of this is true, might I reassure you and say that none of this is true. The "F word" appears sparingly, maybe less than 7 of its 177 pages. The "naked men and women" is not true either, its one naked man, Billy Pilgrim and one semi-naked woman in a zoo on Tralfamadore. Neither are described salaciously, nor is there any erotic content in the book. It's sexless. And it's not, "God telling people to stop messing with his loser son.", it's Billy reading a story by Kilgore Trout, his favorite author.
The real reason, might I suggest, for the animosity towards the book is that it is "anti-war". It is cynical, sarcastic and wry about the reasons for war and the reasons for maintaing our war mongering society. The real "danger", if any, of this book is that it shows that war is fought by children. The subtile of the book is - "or The Children's Crusade." The worse thing that could happen from reading this book is that the scales are removed form our eyes and we like Billy on Tralfamadore see through the ridiculous sorry folly of war.
The best thing one can do is, what Wesley Scroggins didn't do, i.e. read the book. Better still is if you are a parent, buy it for you child. If folly dies as a result then, "So it goes."
on 28 January 2004
Without a doubt one of the most original, thought-provoking, captivating and post-modern texts I have ever read. Moving, touching, human, informative and endearing, I recommend this to anyone who can read, or has the slightest interest in something... extra...
It's short (only 157 pages) and it's only taken me two afternoons to finish it, but it'll never truly be finished, and there's no way in hell I'm going to let it rot on a shelf somewhere- I'll be reading it again within a week or two.
Possible contender for a new favourite author here...
Ignore the sneering review, this is a modern classic. In the hands of another author, this might have become a pot-boiling melodrama, but in the compassionate - some would almost say dispassionate tones and measured language of Vonnegut it becomes a deadly weapon - a deadpan satire with teeth, explaining the firebombing of Dresden in terms to bring shame to those who perpetrated this war crime - the victors, in this case.
Vonnegut also employs a simple science fiction technique to great effect - allowing Billy Pilgrim to travel up and down his life at will rather than living it sequentially is far more satisfying than flashbacks and flashforwards.
I find it an incredibly moving book, one of very few worthy of their accolades.
on 6 November 2011
This book certainly has the wow factor. It is unusual, funny, surreal and intense - like nothing ever read before, it stands alone.
It is the story of Billy Pilgrim who was a POW with the 'author' during the second world war. Billy travels back and forward in time visiting himself at various ages - including the period during the second world war and the fire bombing of Dresden. In addition to this strange time-travelling existence, or because of it, he is kidnapped and transported to the far awar planet of Tralfamadore in a flying saucer - where he is kept in a zoo (with a beautiful actress) that he cannot leave due to the outside atmosphere being poisonous.
(I told you it was surreal). This sounds very wacky - and it is.
The humour used in the book is hilarious - one of my favourite passages is where Billy is captured:
The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances, was a female German Shepherd. She was shivering. Her tail was between her legs. She had been borrowed that morning from a farmer. She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played. Her name was Princess.
This passage is followed up by a description of the Germans who are arresting the POWs - boys, old men and an officer sick of war.
The two main themes of the book are:
- life is not always wonderful (so it goes)
- war is fought by Children. Young men before they have begun to live are the fodder for war.)
I would not necessarily recommend this book to everyone, because it is so unusual and I can see how people may not get it - but it has a tremendous impact and deserves its critical acclaim.
on 18 April 2012
This is one of those books that need to be read with an already basic understanding of the author's background. First off, Kurt Vonnegut really was present at the controversial bombing of Dresden (Germany) by Allied Forces in 1945, killing thousands of civilians and Prisoners of War. Slaughterhouse 5 was the building in which Vonnegut and his colleagues sheltered from the bombing. Knowing this somehow puts a different slant on the whole story.
The first and last chapters explain all this, but in a narrative way that fits perfectly into the story - that the author was actually there, the slow progress of actually writing the book and how it was given its subtitle. Upon visiting an old friend of his from the War, the friend's wife remarked how such a book should not be written as all men Vonnegut's age had just been child soldiers, fighting in a war that was not their own. Hence, 'the children's crusade.' That's one of the major themes of Slaughterhouse 5 - that the 'men' drafted in to fight for both sides of World War Two towards the end were either too young, too old or too injured.
This is doubly true in Billy Pilgrim's case. He's definitely young, but to me at least, he seems a little... off. Mentally ill perhaps. He has an odd gait, doesn't understand basic concepts and generally needs somebody to push him along from behind. That might just be my interpretation, but that's the idea I took from it. The point is, he shouldn't have been there, along with thousands of other people unsuited for conscription.
So, the aliens -and no, I'm not joking. The timeline flits about constantly, in a Time Traveller's Wife kind of way, and it does get a little confusing at times. The concept is that Billy was abducted by aliens (the Tralfamadorians) and exhibited in a zoo on their home planet. Eventually he starts to see time as they do - as if every moment of the past, present and future is happening all the time. Time doesn't progress; it doesn't need to if you can see every second of every day at once.
While I did enjoy Slaughterhouse 5, I didn't seem to really connect to it. Maybe it was because it was more absurd than I expected, or perhaps I just wasn't in the right frame of mind. Either way, it is worth a read. Just keep in mind that Kurt Vonnegut's statistics and viewpoints aren't all strictly correct - apparently the Nazis exaggerated the death toll as part of their propaganda schemes. The author states it was around 130,000, but recent investigations show it was actually more around 25,000. Not that that's not bad enough, mind you.
on 12 September 2010
...or may be I have simply missed the concept; the novel was just a tad depressing although I am sure there is meant to be an element of black humour. The only other Vonnegut I've read was Bluebeard and that had more impact (even if it did seem to have a similar style to John Irving and John Updike in parts - note I think one of these authors post-dates Vonnegut and one is just about contemporary).
It was interesting to note the reference to David Irving vis a vis Dresden... the same historian who has been so controversial regarding The Holocaust, I assume. Still, many years after having heard of the book, I'm glad that I have read it, just not too impressed...
on 10 July 2002
This book is so entertaining I read it twice more after finishing. Comparisons with Catch 22 are germane as both are 2nd World War satirical anti-war books, though I found Slaughterhouse 5 punchier and funnier than Heller's work (which is fantastic as well). The misfortunes that befall the hapless pacific Billy Pilgrim (he doesn't do anything- things just happen to him) operate as a neat parody of the horror and injustices of war. And the sci-fi element brought to my mind the cameo appearance of aliens in Monty Python's The Life Of Brian. Brutal, clever humour. But of course it delivers a thought-provoking message about human nature too. You could also try Cat's Cradle.
The first chapter in this book is in the first person which gives context to the rest of the book. I always forget how rare, but enjoyable, it is to read first person until you come across it, generally in autobiographies. This gave a fascinating start which engaged my curiosity from the beginning.
I loved the swapping backwards and forwards in time. It was initially unsettling but once I accepted that was normal then it was a very relaxing technique. The use of the fourth dimension led to a interesting conclusion that when a body dies it doesn't matter as there are still times when it was alive and they can be revisited at any time.
Billy has memories from the future which is a great concept and I loved his complete acceptance of what will be happening at some time and also accepting his inability to change it.
I'm not quite sure how the author managed to acheive it, but the suspense was retained all through the novel even though, through Billy, the reader has already seen the end of the story.
There is a thin line between the philosophical genius of Billy and his lunatic tendancies which increase as the time progressed towards his death.
This is the first Kurt Vonnegut book I have read and I will read more.
on 5 June 2006
Taught now in English classes as a post-modern sketch of the absurdity of war, this novel uses a collage of techniques and genres--science fiction, episodic storytelling, Absurdism, memoir--to get its point across.
It's point can still be missed, however. War is fought by children, Vonnegut explains, caught up in something that they often do not understand. Therein lay the absurdity. Vonnegut's own personal history, captured and held in Dresden during the bombing, allowed him firsthand to witness the devastation war can bring. Ideologies are transient, he realizes. And the destruction of one of the most beautiful European cities and the deaths of 24,000 human beings had a profound effect on him. What is the point? Examine the purpose of life. What is it?
The story demands the reader to ask questions of him/herself.
Also, the impact this book has had on literature can't be ignored. In an earlier review, the stylistic similarities to Adams and Irving, both who followed Vonnegut and so were obviously influenced, was mentioned. That's important. You can trace a number of modern satirists to Vonnegut--Palahniuk being my own personal favorite.
Whether you agree with Vonnegut's stance on war as absurd or not, Slaughterhouse-Five is worth a careful reading.