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 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 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.
I know this novel fairly well having read it several times (once aloud to my students). It is about all time being always present if only we knew, or could realize it, or had a sense about time in the same way we have senses for light and sound.
It is also about the Allied fire bombings of Dresden which killed about 25,000 people. (And so it goes.) Kurt Vonnegut begins as though writing a memoir and advises us that "All of this happened, more or less..." Of course it did not, and yet, as with all real fiction, it is psychologically true. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, an unlikely hero, somewhat in the manner of unlikely heroes to come like Forest Gump and the hero of Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, transcends time and space as he bumbles along. This is a comédie noire--a "black comedy"--not to be confused with "film noir," a cinematic genre in which the bad guys may win or at least they are made sympathetic. In comédie noire the events are horrific but the style is light-hearted. What the genres have in common is a non-heroic protagonist.
This is also a totally original work written in a most relaxing style that fuses the elements of science fiction with realism. It is easy to read (which is one of the reasons it can be found on the high school curriculum in our public schools). It is sharply satirical, lampooning not only our moral superiority, our egocentricity, but our limited understanding of time and space. And of course it is anti-war novel in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
Vonnegut's view of time in this novel is like the stratification of an upcropping of rock: time past and time present are there for us to see, but also there is time future. Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians (who kidnapped him in 1967) that we are actually timeless beings who experience what we call the past, present and future again and again. And so Billy goes back to the war and forward to his marriage, and to Tralfamadore again and again. He learns that the Tralfamadorians see the stars not as bright spots of light but as "rarefied, luminous spaghetti" and human beings as "great millepedes with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other." So time is not a river, nor is it a snake with its tail in its mouth. It is omnipresent, yet some things occur before and some after, and but always they occur again.
And so it goes.
What I admire most about this most admirable novel is how easily and naturally Vonnegut controls the narrative and how effortlessly seems its construction. It is almost as if Vonnegut sat down one day and let his thoughts wander and when he was through, here is this novel.
In a sense, Vonnegut invented a new novelistic genre, combining fantasy with realism, touched by fictionalized memoir, penned in a comedic mode as horror is overtaken by a kind of fatalistic yet humorous view of life. Note here the appearance of Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's alter-ego, the science fiction writer who is said to have invented Tralfamadore.
Bottom line: read this without preconceptions and read it without regard to the usual constraints. Just let it flow and accept it for what it is, a juxtaposition of several genres, a tale of fiction, that--as fiction should--transcends time and space.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Novels and other Fictions"
on 15 June 2001
Slaughterhouse 5 is every bit as good as it's reputation suggests. It is witty, observant, humane, and clever. Vonnegut writes in a deceptively simple prose, but which must have been difficult to have pulled off: namely, the way the story flits from the present to the past and to the future, very often in a single page, but manages to do it without disturbing the effortless flow of the narrative. No mean trick for a writer. A favourite book of mine. I can also recommend some of his earlier books: The Sirens of Titan; Piano Player; Mother Night, and Player Piano. His later books are not so hot; but Slaughterhouse 5 is his masterpiece. Like Heller's Catch 22, with which it has something in common, it is fun to read.
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.
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 January 2012
I have now read this novel, Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, twice over a two-month period. My second reading was for the purpose of a book club and I felt that it would give me an opportunity to ascertain what I had missed on my first reading. I am afraid to say that my second reading did not make my experience of the book any more enjoyable than the first reading nor did I feel that I had gained anything that I might have missed from my first reading. Yet I have to admit that my lack of appreciation of this novel places me in a minority because over the years it has gained cult status and is ranked number 18 in Modern Library list of 100 best novels in English. So here are my reasons as to why I think Slaughterhouse 5 is a much overrated novel.
Slaughterhouse 5 purports to be an anti war novel with Vonnegut putting across his message in an indirect manner. Chapter one of the book is effectively a preface in which, autobiographical fashion, Vonnegut sets the scene for the novel to follow. He launches the novel proper by telling us at the end of chapter one that he has: "finished his war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun." This is a hint at part of the novel's method that is its use of irony because obviously war is not fun. I also suspect that this is one of the reasons why the book is much praised - it is a satire and we all love a good laugh even against the backdrop of war and its brutality.
Chapter two introduces the main character of the novel, Billy Pilgrim. The story of Billy relates to his experience in the Second World War whilst held as a prisoner of war in Dresden where he experiences the bombing of the city. Along with this realistic aspect of the story Vonnegut also creates a science fiction narrative where Billy tells us in a radio broadcast that he was kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967 and taken to a planet called Tralfamadore. The sci-fi aspect of the novel is another reason why I did not like it. It reads like a children's fantasy story.
Vonnegut does a number of interesting things with Billy. He has him drifting back and forth in time. A process Vonnegut calls being "unstuck in time". Bill even ends up in two places at the same time. This process allows Billy to narrate this past life and his current predicament in Dresden. All this is supposed to be delivered in a witty fashion but I found Vonnegut's wit childish. For example, the creatures on Tralfamadore, "can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti." Further, part of Vonnegut's style is to deliver his narrative in short simple sentences in a reportage fashion. I found this monotonous and dull.
It could be argued that the novel works on an allegorical level, where there is an underlying story about how humans treat each other and other creatures. For example, Billy is placed in a zoo in Tralfamadore and he is subsequently given a female "mate", Montana Wildhack, so that Tralfamadorians could see them mate. Also Vonnegut has one of his minor characters Howard W Campbell Jr set out a case in a monograph to show how we treat each other in unfair and unequal ways.
The novel is also about the writing and creative process. In setting out to write the novel Vonnegut tells us that: "As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontation, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one was on the back of a roll of wallpaper." Vonnegut then has a way of merging his ramblings about the creative process into an autobiographical narrative. So effectively he blurs the line between fiction and biography. This was clever.
The small parts of gems in this novel do not add up to a whole glittering diamond. I struggled to get to the end of this short novel on both readings and as I did so I could hear, a key feature of the novel, the tedious refrains: "So it goes" and "And so on" ringing in my ears. The novel is meant to deliver a powerful message but the means detracts from the message.
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 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.