I quite enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s bizarre but fascinating and I was sad when it ended. It helps to read more of Vonnegut’s work however before or after however.
Kurt Vonnegut is a modern author, having written some 14 novels since the 1950s that challenged the idea of what classy literature should be . Before his writing days, Vonnegut fought in World War II as a young man and his experiences as a prisoner of war seem to have been a defining influence on his literary career. In particular, Vonnegut experienced the bombing of Dresden (in Germany) first-hand and chronicles it in Slaughterhouse-Five. Slaughterhouse-Five is the long-awaited sequel to Slaughterhouse-Four and… nay I kid: it’s his sixth novel and possibly his most well-known. The book starts with an apology for it being written. Sly Kurt.
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who survived the Dresden bombing as a prisoner of war (semi-autobiographical novel?). Late in his life, Billy decides to reveal his secret to the world: that he’s a time traveller and that he came to understand the nature and fate of the universe after he was captured by a race of 4th dimensional aliens from planet Tralfamadore and put in a zoo (maybe not that autobiographical after all).
So Slaughterhouse-Five is bizarre, but it’s also strangely human. We follow Billy Pilgrim as he travels through time; we see his experiences during the war, his childhood, his marriage, his optometry career, his contact with the Tralfamadorians and even his ultimate fate; all told in non-linear order. Don’t expect Billy to be in any one time for too long so while the experiences of WWII are roughly linear, everything else jumps around at random. For most of the events however, the narrator guides us through, so as random as the structure appears to be, the book actually follows sensibly.
The notion of ‘plot’ however breaks down in Slaughterhouse-Five. As Billy travels back and forth through time we see what his life was and what it becomes. And yet, knowing what’s going to happen, Billy continues on, accepting everything conveyor-belt-style. Um. The Tralfamadorians tell him that free will is a fantasy, that everything that has happened or will happen already exists and that human beings can’t see it because they only see in 3 dimensions. It’s a sick notion of fatalistic determinism that keeps cropping up. To Billy, the war was inevitable. To him, death and destruction were inevitable. So it goes.
But somehow I don’t think that explains the whole picture. To me, Slaughterhouse-Five was also the story of a broken man trying to make sense of his life after the war. The story being in shambles is perhaps what Billy’s life has become. Perhaps that’s what anyone’s life would become after witnessing a massacre that killed 135,000 people. A number like that doesn’t make sense to the human brain. So it goes.
Closing comment on Vonnegut’s style. His writing is exquisite. The descriptions are unusual but striking.
In closing, I quite enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s bizarre but fascinating and I was sad when it ended. It helps to read more of Vonnegut’s work however before or after however. Something I did after reading this book.
See you next week.