Slaughterhouse-Five


Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication Year: 1969
Pages: 215
Genre: Fiction
Count for Year: 53

How I discovered

I don’t know when I first discovered this. I know it was in high school. I didn’t have to read it for class, but it was on one of those recommending reading lists we’d get in the summers between grades and I believe I read it. However, I thought since it had been so long ago and I didn’t really remember it, I’d read it for my Personal Banned Book Week Challenge, since last year it was a challenged book. [1]

The setup

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

from Amazon.com review

Last week a friend of the owners of the bookstore where I work part-time mentioned he was reading Slaughterhouse-Five and thought it was hilarious. I must admit that I don’t know if I’d completely agree with him. I didn’t find the book all that hilarious. In fact, much of the time I found the book to be quite sad. But anyone expecting a laugh-out-loud novel should think otherwise just from the first paragraph:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I really knew was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hiring gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

We also learn from the start that the book is semi-autobiographical, in nature, Vonnegut was a prisoner of war who survived the Allied bombings of Dresden in World War II, yet only semi-autobiographical as seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, to whom we are introduced in Chapter Two:

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He was walked through a door in 1955 and came out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage frights, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

This is where the semi-autobiographical part ends and the fictionalization begins to take over as we further learn that Billy was abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and is the reason he is “unstuck in time.” Throughout the rest of the book, we are introduced to a diverse group of characters, from an antitank gunner named Roland Weary, who likes to beat up on Billy, to a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the writings of Kilgore Trout, a circulation manager of a newspaper, who writes science fiction novels with plots in which Billy himself could be. And so on.

That phrase along with “So it goes” are not only the catch phrases of the book, but also the philosophy behind the book, that we as human beings have no control over what happens to us. It’s just what life is…without meaning. As a Catholic Christian, I can’t agree completely with Vonnegut’s view of the world, but I understand from where he is coming and like Douglas Adams, whom I also love, I still can– and do– appreciate the dark absurdist humor. I also appreciate the underlying melancholy in Vonnegut’s book, because that is something we all feel from time to time no matter how strong we feel our faith is. As one who also leans toward existentialist views of life, I think though it is something through which we struggle toward hopefully a greater good, although that may not always be the case.

Final analysis: 5/5. Deserves to be called “a classic” in every sense of the words.

[1] The book was challenged in the Howell, Mich. High School (2007) along with several other books because of strong sexual content. In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, the county’s top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. This is what the county’s prosecutor wrote:

After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic, or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors. Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of the criminal laws.

Personally, either I must be so jaded to sexual content in books or it was so minor that it was just part of the story and the general ennui that Pilgrim felt toward life in general, that I really didn’t notice the “strong sexual content.” I’ve seen worse on HBO or (shudder) Skinemax.

If you have read and reviewed this book, please leave a link in the comments or e-mail me at justareadingfool (at) gmail (dot) com and I will add the link to the bottom of this post.

12 responses to “Slaughterhouse-Five

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  3. I have to say I’m with your friend! I found it a “laugh out loud” book (of course not all of it)! But that’s why Vonnegut is brilliant. His personality (dark humor) and realism is weaved into this strange fabric which makes his writing superb. Having a Vonnegut give-away on new collection “Look At the Birdie” if interested. Give him another whirl???

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  7. My review of this book can be found at my website. I’m not much of a Vonnegut fan so didn’t give it a very good review — but I appreciate the comments here especially the explanation of “and so it goes”. Thanks.

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  10. It’s a brilliant book, isn’t it? I love Vonnegut.

    And I completely missed the “strong sexual content” too. How silly of us to be distracted by, you know, all the actual important points in the book 😛

    Here’s the link to my review.

  11. I went through a Vonnegut spree my senior year in college. In fact, I did an independent study course on Vonnegut for a whole semester. I wrote like Vonnegut for at least 6 months afterwards!! Needless to say, I love his writing.

    My 15-year-old is reading Slaughterhouse 5 right now, as he is just finishing studying WW2. I’ll be curious to see if this will throw him into a Vonnegut reading frenzy.

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