Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Brutal and humane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

slaughterhouse-fiveThe narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.

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52 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. This sounds pretty incredible. When I started reading the review and you mentioned aliens and time travel I was a bit skeptical as both those aspects are usually guaranteed to make me put down a book sharpish. But it being an element of his PTSD is very clever indeed. I shall certainly add this to my list, it certainly sounds deserving of its status as a classic. And a very pertinent novel in these brutal times.

    • Much better than I was expecting, actually! I wonder how many people have been put off reading it because of the science fiction reputation – I know a lot of people avoid anything SF like the plague. Yes, every time I glanced up from reading about the horrors of bombing Dresden, the TV was showing pictures of Aleppo… nothing changes, sadly.

      • I definitely avoid SF (and fantasy) like the plague and an anti-war SF novel sounds like a complete cringe-fest. However, your fabulous review has changed my mind completely! I do hope authors are appreciative of the good work you do on their behalf 🙂 Not that bad ones, obviously – haha!
        Every time they say ‘there will never be such atrocities again’ – yet they seem to get worse and worse. Will we ever learn, I wonder? Hmm.

  2. In my opinion, FictionFan, t’s rare indeed that an author can create a really powerful protest novel that actually feels like someone’s story, if that makes sense. That’s what I think one of the real strengths of this story is. The writing, of course, is strong, and so are the characters. But I think it’s that skill that makes it a cut above. Glad you enjoyed it so well.

    • Yes, I liked that aspect – that it was about one man with no real discussion of the politics of the thing. Because sadly whether on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side, the after-effects of being involved in a horrific war are probably much the same. I also liked that he concentrated much more on the personal effect on Billy rather than on lengthy descriptions of the horrors – sometimes even protest books can slide over into a kind of perverse glorification of war if they’re not handled well…

    • Thank you! 🙂 It’s the only one I’ve read so far, but I’ll definitely read more now. Yes, I thought his way was much more effective than some of the books I’ve read that have lingered too much on the actual horrors and either become too bleak to read, or forget to create characters to care about…

  3. I’m glad you liked this one, FF, but it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Time travel, war, all those deaths … no, not for me. But hey, to each his own, right? (Bonus — now that you’ve done such an excellent review, I at least know what I’m missing!!)

    • It’s ceratinly a quirky one – I can quite see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. To be honest, I didn’t think it would be mine either, but he won me over! (Thank you! I frequently think that myself after reading other people’s reviews… 🙂 )

  4. Totally a classic! I know you’ll be on my side about this: whenever I find myself embroiled in yet another hotly-tipped book which is bloated and could have done with losing 150+ pages to a heavier edit, I always find myself muttering “look at Slaughterhouse 5” – all that achieved in so few pages!

    • Absolutely! Or Gatsby – another surprisingly short book that packs a huge punch. That’s why I can’t really understand the current trend for bloated books, though I do think I’m noticing books beginning to get back to more traditional lengths – hurrah! Having said that, I’m reading one at the moment where I keep finding myself muttering “Oh, do get on with it!”…

  5. I am a big fan of this book and of Vonnegut in general. I still have quite a few of his I’ve never read, though. This is a good reminder to get back on that project next year! I have to space them out, though, because while bleakly funny, and very observant about humanity’s weaknesses, they are rather depressing to me on the whole.

  6. So glad you enjoyed this one, it has been a favourite of many for many years, and watching Syria collapse into barbarism makes it very pertinent. And being short makes it even better.

    • I don’t know why I’ve never read it before, but I’m glad I finally did. Yes, I must say when I looked for pictures of Dresden, they looked so like Aleppo I couldn’t bring myself to use them. The sad thing is that only people who are already against war really get the point of anti-war books.

    • I can see why – I can’t think why I’ve never read it before. I think I had a totally wrong opinion of the kind of book it is. It’s definitely now gone on my list of great books – better late than never! 🙂

  7. Thank you for such a great review – I thought this was sci-fi so had never explored any further but it makes sense knowing that it was a protest novel about war that it is actually PTSD – you may just have added this to my list of novels that I really must read in 2017!

    • I did too, Cleo – that’s the way it always gets billed, but it didn’t feel like sci-fi to me at all, despite the time-travelling and aliens. I seriously do think you’d enjoy this – I’d compare it more to the likes of 1984, which some people think of as sci-fi or dystopian fantasy too, but which I think of as fiction…

    • Ooh, no – MUCH easier to read than Joyce! The book certainly isn’t simple in its ideas, but I felt his writing was so skilful that it felt like an oddly easy read, especially surprising given the subject matter. If you do decide to take a chance on it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  8. The catch phrase and the feeling of futility stayed with me after reading this book, also the urge to learn more about Dresden as it was prior to the war. Your review is great, I think some of the plot devices went over my head when I read the book.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I think I pay more attention to reading after years of reviewing than I used to. Yes, I think this is one that will stay in my mind too. I’ve never seen Dresden, but it reminded me of the cathedral in Coventry, one of our cities that was heavily bombed. The ruins of the old cathedral are right next to the amazing new one that was built after the war – it’s very moving.

  9. Well, I have always assumed this was a sci-fi book, through and through, and although it’s on my list because of its status as a classic I have kind of avoided it. I’m glad I read you review!

    • Me too, Naomi, but I genuinely wouldn’t class it as sci-fi really – it read to me more like the 1984 or Animal Farm type of thing, where reality is jettisoned as a way to make a point. And he makes his point very well indeed – I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • Thank you, but… not stellar? *sobs* Oh, I bet you even pronounce gut with a Yankee accent!

      *laughs* Well, I didn’t know you’d be around and nobody else will notice! Anyway they never go anywhere near each other now to get a pretty pic of them together. You should come over with your camera, and I’ll superglue them to each other…

  10. I’ve read this book half a dozen times over the last forty-some years, and it never fails to amaze me. You’ve done a remarkable job of rendering its wonder, and it’s there every time I go back, even just on a whim between these full readings when I spot the old dog-eared paperback on a shelf. The real wonder, every time, is how someone could write such a perfect novel with such unconventional materials and nail it, seemingly on the first go.

    If I could only take half a dozen books to the hereafter–the one where Jesus is just another kind-hearted soul among the many in the cafe–this would be among them. And it’s shocking to think so, given how short it is, and how many other great books would be clamoring to come.

    • It’s another one of the many that I don’t know why I’ve never read before, but I’m glad I have now. Yes, someow the uniqueness of the format brings his message home much more sharply than a more straightforward telling might have done. Often I can’t read protest novels because they’re so vehement and one-sided and take too simplistic a view, with the result that I find myself arguing against them. But in this one, his kind of fatalistic attitude and lack of overt polemics was much more effective.

      And I did find the stuff about Jesus intriguing even if I didn’t quite see where he was going with it in terms of the book – perhaps I will on a re-read. Because it’s undoubtedly a book I will re-read…

  11. I re-read this just a couple of months ago and it was even better and more powerful than I remembered. The part where he describes watching war movies backwards has always stuck with me. (I’m catching up on blogs after the holidays so I apologize for spamming you with comments!)

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