Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Does 'Poo-tee-weet?' translate as 'Best Book Ever?'

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Written by: Kurt Vonnegut

I actually read this book months ago, in May, while traveling across France. I meant to review it when I got back, and indeed, thought of things that I’d put into the review, but never got around to it. Part of the problem was that I didn’t really think my other book reviews were any good, and thus I worried if I could do the book justice. The book is a bit of tough nut to crack, so I kept putting it off to do more familiar subject matter, like movies and TV. But now that it looks like it might get eliminated from the Best Book Ever Tournament, I figure I should at least get my two cents in before then.

In a way, my doubt and reservations about writing this review reflects Kurt Vonnegut‘s doubt and reservations on writing Slaughterhouse-Five. As explained in the first chapter, a preface of sorts for the tale that explains his reasons for writing it, Vonnegut had planned to write about his experiences in Dresden during its firebombing in World War II for years, but was never able to put together a story that made sense of it.

So he didn’t. He stopped trying to make sense of the senseless and instead came up with the most inspired piece of nonsense I’ve ever read. The Allied bombing of Dresden, which destroyed 90% of the city with fire-bombing techniques that killed between 25–35 thousand people over the course of two days, was one of the most destructive actions of the war, with the total amount of high explosives dropped greater than the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Vonnegut was in Dresden during these attacks, held in a meat locker of a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war while the city was decimated by RAF bombers. He describes the city following the attack to be like the moon.

But the book isn’t about the attack. It’s not about the justifications for the Allied attacks on German targets; it’s not about the senselessness of war or the tragic outcomes of fire-bombing a wooden city. Instead, it is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, a senile widower who has come unstuck in time. A chaplain’s assistant during the war, Pilgrim was taken prisoner by the Germans, eventually finding himself in Dresden during the bombing attacks. He would go on to become an optometrist and wealthy, but, more interestingly, also finds himself abducted by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians, who teach him how to travel in time throughout his past and future.

Or maybe he doesn’t. He is senile after all. Or maybe he isn’t. Vonnegut is very cagey about what is real and what is imagined, letting reality and fantasy sit alongside each other, each being equally ridiculous and inexplicable. Time travel is the device that powers the book, making it at once nonsensical and the only way to make any sense of the events at all. While Billy deals with over-packed freight trains of prisoners, ludicrous British POWs who put on shows to pass the time, and shuffling through the surface of the moon amongst the smoldering ash of its former inhabitants, he also deals with his loveless post-war marriage, surviving a plane crash, and being put on display in a zoo on Tralfamadore.

At times, Billy is like a reverse Walter Mitty, dealing with the fantastic moments of his life by drifting off to the mundane moments of his past or future. Chronology is Vonnegut’s plaything in this book, with the leaps in Billy’s life seemingly random, with little to link one to the other, but taken as a whole, making complete sense. The book is wonderfully imaginative, wildly entertaining, and thought-provoking in a way that a simple re-telling of the war could never hope to be. It’s barely about the bombing of Dresden, and is the best commentary you’ll ever read about it at the same time. As Vonnegut writes in the first chapter, “it is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”.

Instead, Vonnegut employed his trademark voice to create a brilliant work of fiction that blurs the lines of fiction, reality, and science fiction throughout. It was my first exposure to Vonnegut, an exposure I found incredibly rewarding. It’s a challenging book to comprehend while being an easy book to read. Vonnegut wraps his wonderfully fantastic ideas with wonderfully unadorned language, all in a compact tale that serves as one of the great anti-war works in all of literature.


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