I've long heard people mention Kurt Vonnegut as a great American author and Slaughterhouse-Five as one of America's great novels, but I never really knew much about either of them. I think someone had once told me this was a book set during World War II, but I guess I'd forgotten that. I wasn't sure what to expect as I opened the novel…maybe something about working in slaughterhouses? I certainly wasn't expecting what I found…a strange little work of fiction that bounces around time nonlinearly and even into science fiction while exploring the ideas of fate, mortality and free-will.
The book opens with an introductory preface explaining how the narrator (potentially Vonnegut's voice, but since it's a fictionalized introduction, he's distanced himself from it) is qualified to tell a story set in World War II and why he is writing the book. After this kind of odd introduction, we are thrown into the story of a man named Billy Pilgrim. The plot meanders through time and presents Billy's life in a very non-linear fashion. We jump back and forth between Billy's early life, his early experiences in the war, his time as a POW, and his post-war life. The events are often intermingled or juxtaposed in ways that make the plot line slightly disorienting.
The narrator allows for this nonlinear jumping around through an odd element that really caught me off guard. This is also a science fiction novel. About midway through his life, Billy is abducted by aliens…Tralfamadorians. He is taken to their planet and placed in a zoo within a "cage" built to resemble a human home. The Tralfamadorians have a different concept of time….they see in four-dimensions. They see and experience all moments of time in a single instant. Past, Present and Future exist all at once to them. As Billy spends time in their zoo, he becomes "unstuck in time" and also experiences life in four dimensions with everything very nonlinear.
The narrative is an examination of Billy's life in a way that lets us see how events lead to consequences. But the causality shown is presented in a very matter-of-fact way. Everything happens. It just happens. Even if you know the future ahead of time (as the Tralfamadorians do…and as Billy later does), there isn't any desire to stop things from happening or alter the future in any way. In fact, they suggest that fate cannot be changed.
Billy is a soldier (really a chaplain's aid, and not very well trained as a soldier) captured by the Germans in World War II and taken to Dresden in time to be present for the bombing that destroyed the city and many/most of its inhabitants. After the war he returns home to become an optometrist and marries the daughter of a prominent optometrist in his town. Around this time he is taken by the aliens and spends time in their zoo and becomes unstuck in time. After he returns to Earth, he begins telling the world about his experience. Finally he announces that he knows how, where and when he will be killed…and then it happens. So it goes.
The narrator apologizes for the length and jumbled nature of the book and excuses it by pointing out that there is "nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." Even though he points out that this book is about the War and the bombing of Dresden, much of the book takes place outside of the War but in a way that comments on war and mortality.
The style of writing is very straightforward and direct. The sentences and overall structure is short and to the point. The plot itself is fairly simplistic either as a war novel or as a science fiction novel. And yet, the whole package is very thick and nuanced with all sorts of strange ideas and themes. I suspect that it is this depth within simplicity that has made this novel stand out.
Through the circular timeline as well as textual repetition, the author makes subtle points again and again. Probably the most commonly repeated phrase in the book is the sentence "So it goes" which the author writes every time someone or something dies. It's a very matter-of-fact commentary on the nature of death. This short refrain is almost humorous when juxtaposed against some of the more tragic or horrific deaths within the book. On the one sense it seems to speak to the desensitizing nature of war that the narrator and Billy can both look at death in such a nonchalant manner.
In another sense it emphasizes the authors Tralfamadorian notion that death is just part of life and there's nothing especially noteworthy about it. This concept (coupled with the idea of fate and lack of any personal will) creates a sort of passive view of life and existence. To me this is a pretty depressing viewpoint. Essentially it negates any personal choices I might make, suggesting that "it" (the universe?) already knows what choices I'm going to make and my entire path is plotted. This sort of thinking is a little paradoxical in my mind. If we take out agency and tell somebody that no matter what they do, they're going to have this outcome, then a person could become apathetic, lazy and despondent and not do anything…and as a result, fate must necessarily change to accommodate the change in behavior. Or had fate already accounted for the lackadaisical change in attitude and integrated it into your path. All in all, fate and predestination are strange concepts that I just can't get behind. I guess I'm not Tralfamadorian enough yet. ;)
Overall I'm not entirely sure yet what to make of this book. Generally speaking, I enjoyed it. Emotionally I found myself bouncing around. Sometimes I would laugh at the absurdity of things or at the attitudes of the characters. Other times I was horrified at the senseless tragedy of war and the destruction and death that comes with it. I do acknowledge that it should be read by a more mature audience if only for some of the language and some of the descriptions of war scenes. They aren't overly graphic, but certainly not intended for kids.
There are a lot of themes and concepts ripe to be unpacked and considered. From merely a plot standpoint, this is a strange little book that can be entertaining. From a deeper sense, this is a book worth exploring. I definitely see why it is held up as among the "great literature" of modern times.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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