313 of 352 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2001
Slaughter House Five deserves its reputation of being a piece of great American literature. The book follows a young man, Billy Pilgrim through his life. Billy believes aliens, tralfamadorians to be exact, have abducted him. We assume that it's through these aliens that he learns to time travel, a skill he frequently uses. In the book Pilgrim bounces around time to all the various portions of his life, many times returning to World War II where he was captured, taken prisoner, and held in slaughterhouse five in Dresden, Germany. He seems to be defined by this moment in his life as he frequently returns there. If you know anything about Vonnegut, you know that he too was held in Dresden, Germany when the city was firebombed. This is the major setup for this antiwar novel as Dresden was home to over 100,000 persons while at the same time Dresden didn't have any industry lending itself to the war effort. Obviously you wander, "Then why was this city bombed? What advantage came from killing well over 100,000 thousand civilians?"
One of the major themes of the book is fate. The prayer of serenity appears twice in the book stating that we need to change the things we can and be wise enough to know which things we cannot change. Also the Tralfamadorians speak of fate. They say they know how the universe is going to end, but they do nothing to stop it. Vonnegut seems to say that yes, war is one of those things we cannot avoid, but we need to change the things we can about it, like the atrocious bombing of Dresden.
Overall, the book's message is clear, and Vonnegut delivers his message in a very accessible way. The story of Billy Pilgrim is enjoyable to read, and contains more than dry philosophy that some antiwar novels are filled with.
358 of 404 people found the following review helpful
I know this novel fairly well having read it several times (once aloud to my students). It is about all time being always present if only we knew, or could realize it, or had a sense about time in the same way we have senses for light and sound.
It is also about the Allied fire bombings of Dresden which killed something like 25,000 people. (And so it goes.) Kurt Vonnegut begins as though writing a memoir and advises us that "All of this happened, more or less..." Of course it did not, and yet, as with all real fiction, it is psychologically true. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, an unlikely hero, somewhat in the manner of unlikely heroes to come like Forest Gump and the hero of Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, transcends time and space as he bumbles along. This is a comedie noire--a "black comedy"--not to be confused with "film noir," a cinematic genre in which the bad guys may win or at least they are made sympathetic. In comedie noire the events are horrific but the style is light-hearted. What the genres have in common is a non-heroic protagonist.
This is also a totally original work written in a most relaxing style that fuses the elements of science fiction with realism. It is easy to read (which is one of the reasons it can be found on the high school curriculum in our public schools). It is sharply satirical, lampooning not only our moral superiority, our egocentricity, but our limited understanding of time and space. And of course it is an anti-war novel in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
Vonnegut's view of time in this novel is like the stratification of an upcropping of rock: time past and time present are there for us to see, but also there is time future. Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians (who kidnapped him in 1967) that we are actually timeless beings who experience what we call the past, present and future again and again. And so Billy goes back to the war and forward to his marriage, and to Tralfamadore again and again. He learns that the Tralfamadorians see the stars not as bright spots of light but as "rarefied, luminous spaghetti" and human beings as "great millepedes with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other." So time is not a river, nor is it a snake with its tail in its mouth. It is omnipresent, yet some things occur before and some after, but always they occur again.
And so it goes.
What I admire most about this most admirable novel is how easily and naturally Vonnegut controls the narrative and how effortlessly seems its construction. It is almost as if Vonnegut sat down one day and let his thoughts wander, and when he was through, here is this novel.
In a sense, Vonnegut invented a new novelistic genre, combining fantasy with realism, touched by fictionalized memoir, penned in a comedic mode as horror is overtaken by a kind of fatalistic yet humorous view of life. Note here the appearance of Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's alter-ego, the science fiction writer who is said to have invented Tralfamadore.
Bottom line: read this without preconceptions and read it without regard to the usual constraints. Just let it flow and accept it for what it is, a juxtaposition of several genres, a tale of fiction, that--as fiction should--transcends time and space.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
127 of 141 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2000
This novel is essential in many ways. It is undoubtedly one of the best-written, most well respected novels of the 20th century (No. 6 on the list that was a compilation of all the other lists) and is, therefore, essential to your understanding of 20th century fiction. If you have never read Vonnegut, this book should be the first one you read: it is the most famous and one of the best and really captures the essence of Vonnegut. Finally, despite its literary merit, this is a FUN book to read. You will laugh, you will think, but, most of all, you will enjoy reading it and you will finish it FAST.
This should be your introduction to Vonnegut. I've found that true Vonnegut fans don't often choose Slaughterhouse-Five as their favorite, but, instead choose one of Vonnegut's other wonders (Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle, Sirens of Titan, etc.). I think that most would agree that this is a good jumping off point, just as, in music, people often start with Greatest hits albums and then work from there.
Only Vonnegut could make such a strange premise believable and emotional. The book shifts time and place from paragraph to paragraph without warning. It is about aliens and WWII. It all works so perfectly, however and is so profound to those who read carefully. Billy Pilgrim is one of the great characters in all of literature.
Don't be scared off by aliens and the weird premise. It works better than 99% of so-called "normal" books. Absolutely ESSENTIAL.
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2001
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is really something else. I have to admit this is one of the few books where I saw the movie first (years ago), and about 3 years ago, I decided to read the novel. Left a deep impact on me, although I had a hard time understanding it.
So a couple of months ago I saw the movie again, loved it again (although I normally detest movies done after books), and then decided to read all of Vonnegut's novels and shortstories, and chronologically this time, starting out with the promising Player Piano.
Now I reread Slaughterhouse Five, and so far it is Vonnegut's best book. It is clearly an attempt to describe his impressions in World War Two and especially Dresden, but instead of writing a realistic novel about war, Vonnegut 'invents' a totally non-linear genre of science fiction that is absolutely unique in its scope.
There is no suspense at all, because the novel's main character (not to call him hero) Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, which means he travels back and forth in time. We meet a young Pilgrim traumatized by his gun-loving father, a Pilgrim lost in World War Two, a Pilgrim married to the obese daughter of a rich John Birch Society nutcase and above all a happy Pilgrim living on Tralfamadore, a planet in a faraway solar system. All this is narrated in no particular order, and maybe the book needs to be read twice to get its scope, but it is worth it.
Vonnegut's style also reaches a level that I haven't seen of him in the past, very bitter-sarcastic-loving-sweet... all at once. Every death is followed by a shrugged "So it goes.", and paragraphes are often introduced with "Listen:". In a heartwarming sad tale, Vonnegut tells us not only of the senselessness of war (where there are no crooks, just victims), but also teaches the reader a valuable moral: focus on the positive moments of your life.
Then there are some characters which avid Vonnegut fans will love to see back: wretched sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, millionaire Eliot Rosewater and American nazi Howard Campbell jr. Plus two goofs: the border between Luxembourg and Germany is a valley, not a hill, and people with an IQ of 103 are of average intelligence, not morons.
Read this book though.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 1998
Kurt Vonnegut creates an intricate and creative story of science fiction while still writing an anti-war novel. " Slaughterhouse-Five " focuses on an incredibly silly character named Billy Pilgrim. After a series of tragic events, aliens called Tralfamadorians abduct Pilgrim. These aliens have the ability to travel to any moment in time whenever they wish. They teach Pilgrim how to travel through time and we find him constantly traveling back and forth through his own life at random. We find Pilgrim one moment reliving the firebombing of Dresden and on the very next page teeing off at a country club ten years later. Incidents exactly like this can be found adorned through the book along with Vonnegut's distinct wit and black humor. One of the stronger points in the book deals with free will and predestination. Billy Pilgrim and the aliens believe that everyone's life is set in stone and everything that we do was destined to happen. One Tralfamadorian tells Pilgrim, I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." If such a thing were true then obviously the notion of free will is nothing more than human imagination used to fool ourselves. Thought provoking subjects such as this grab the reader's attention and never lets go. Although the writing style is a bit strange and takes time to get used to, Vonnegut manages to weave an intricately detailed world of laughter, war horrors, and moral issues. Slaughterhouse-Five is a truly creative and incredibly entertaining read which comes highly recommended.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2001
Throughout the seemingly incoherent plot structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut illustrates not only his subtle outcry against the stupidity of war, but also his cynical views on the meaning of life. Although the novel is based upon the life of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist correcting the vision of people on Earth, and his experiences leading up to the bombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, the time-setting fluctuates as Billy comes "unstuck" in time to view his past and future. This fluctuation may confuse the reader at first, but soon becomes clear, revealing the purpose behind the masterfully chosen timeline. The apparent random structure of the tale holds within it Vonnegut's ideas on the circular nature of life and existence of fate. He first hints to this in the first chapter as he quotes a song that continues through infinite, just as a circle. As the story progresses, the Tralfamadorian aliens are introduced, providing the basis for the abnormal writing style. The Tralfamadorians write in such a way that all events of the book are read at once so that the scenes "produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep" (88). Although his abduction by aliens is only a part of his imagination, forced into existence by the stresses of war and the influences of his favorite science fiction novelist, it plays a major roll in Billy's "so it goes" attitude toward life and causes him to act in such a way that people are eventually repelled by him. Just as the aliens introduce Billy to infinite, they also reveal the nature of fate. Because these creatures can see through time, they already know the outcome of all events, even the one that destroys the universe. Because they know that nothing can change this, they find that the human concept of free will is hilariously preposterous. Vonnegut also includes his anti-war position throughout the whole mess. In the autobiographical first chapter, he even states that this is an anti-war book. This is further supported by his alternate title, The Children's Crusade, referring to the episode during the great Crusades when thousands of children marched to their deaths. The parallel between Billy's capture in Germany and his capture by the aliens also reveals his attitude. Billy asks the aliens why he was chosen out of all the people on Earth. They only respond "Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?" (76). When he is captured in Germany, a soldier is asked "Why me?" and he replies "Vy you? Vy anybody?" (91). This connection between the aliens and the war create a sense that war is stupid. His repeated use of "human beings" in his description of the Nazi transport train forces the reader to realize that these are actual people in this terrible environment. Vonnegut's beliefs in life and war can clearly be seen through the workings of Slaughterhouse-Five as he constantly changes the timeline. These beliefs are all very important to the meaning of the book, but none more than his idea that life is meaningless in a structured time.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
For a truly surreal reading experience, it doesn't get much better than Kurt Vonnegut's seminal science fiction/drama novel "Slaughterhouse Five". Ostensibly an anti-war novel, "Slaughterhouse Five" transports the readers to many different places and times following the journey of the unimpressive Billy Pilgrim. Billy is a sad, pathetic individual who seems to have spent almost all of his existence just mindlessly wandering from one station in life to the next without much enthusiasm for it or even much interest. He's the kind of person that, if you saw him walking down the street or met him at a party, he would leave absolutely no impression. Billy, like many in his generation, served in World War II. The story (stories) of this novel center on the Dresden fire bombings in the last days of the war and his survival in an underground shelter, the aforementioned 'slaughterhouse five'. He survived the war, went back home, became an optometrist, got married, and had a life with all the trappings of suburbia. None of it really seems to matter to him, though. He would have been content to die in WWII for he did not want to fight. He was joke to those that served with him in a German POW camp. Even in his own life back home, Billy wasn't much. He married relatively unattractive woman because that's what people did. His colleagues didn't have much respect for him, nor did his own children in later years. So, what was Billy Pilgrim's purpose for existing? He seemed to think it was to spread the message of an alien race about becoming 'unstuck in time'.
"Slaughterhouse Five" departs from any semblance of normal story-telling formats. As Billy Pilgrim has become 'unstuck in time', he feels he exists in an environment where, instead of time being one chronological line, it is a series of points that exist concurrently and perpetually. Billy falls asleep a widower and wakes up on his wedding day. He may revisit his war experience or go back to childhood. Billy journeys all over time because, where he's concerned, everything that has happened and will happen is all happening at the same time. Perhaps it is the influence of the aliens that enable him to think this way, or perhaps Billy is really just suffering from severe post-traumatic stress following the Dresden bombing. Either way, Billy is missing something in his life. His journeys through time are his way to try and find meaning in a life where none exists. It is a unique and existential journey for the reader and one definitely worth taking. So it goes.
31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse Five" is one of those great books that defies easy classification. A blend of science fiction, satire, and war fiction, it is both fun and grim. The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist, World War II veteran, and apparent UFO abductee who becomes "unstuck in time." We accompany Billy back and forth from his wartime experiences to his encounters with aliens and to other events in his remarkable life.
"Slaughterhouse" is greatly enlivened by a colorful, richly imagined cast of supporting characters: American-turned-Nazi Howard W. Campbell, movie star Montana Wildhack, and more. But probably the most resonant of these amazing creations is Kilgore Trout, the underappreciated science fiction writer.
The book has an intriguing structure. Vonnegut's prose is a joy to experience: he combines a sort of Hemingwayesque simplicity with a knack for rendering startling, and often ridiculous, details. He is often very ironic and funny. Along the way, he explores ideas about free will and the nature of time. Much of the book is about writing itself.
In this book there is an intriguing reference to Stephen Crane's classic "The Red Badge of Courage"; perhaps this reference is Vonnegut's way of directly connecting with the tradition of American war fiction. But this book transcends that genre. "Slaughterhouse Five" is sad, surreal, whimsical, brutal, and oddly gentle. It's a remarkable book; I highly recommend it. As an interesting companion text, try "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien's excellent book about the Vietnam War.
69 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Kurt Vonnegut is an author whom I became intimately familiar with for a few years. I read, literally, every single work of fiction that he has had published, and generally enjoyed them, as well. However, it seems that Vonnegut is also the type of author that one outgrows: I re-read Slaughterhouse Five in its entirety some two months ago, and have not been more frustrated (and tired) by a book in quite a while. The biggest issue with Vonnegut is, no matter what else is to be said: He is formulaic. After a while, all of his stories bleed together, his cynicism is tiresome, and his misanthropy becomes cliche.
Slaughterhouse Five is often hailed as Vonnegut's piece de resistane, though I sincerely doubt it was written as such. It deals primarily with a man, Billy Pilgrim, who continually experiences changes and "jumps" in time: He does not experience a linear sense of time. Pilgrim fought in World War II, and is subsequently kidnapped by Trafalmadorians, an alien race who also do not experience linear time.
This book has been championed as an anti-war novel, though to be honest, I never quite saw this. Does Vonnegut speak down on war? Most assuredly. But I think this book extends far, far past simply being an anti-war novel: In fact, I think the theme of "anti-war" is perhaps the one theme which is least prominant in the book.
Truth be told, perhaps to others the literary merits of this novel shine through, but I personally believe there are far more intriguing, thought provoking, and funny books by Vonnegut out there. Mother Night and The Sirens of Titan, to name two. Slaughterhouse Five is worth reading for its supposed literary merit, but it seems to me that it is a sophomoric work of Vonnegut's: Its ideas are there, and they are far, far below the surface.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2000
One of those books where after you read it you look at your copy and wonder how something of such power could be put on paper. Through Billy Pilgrim's experience with the aliens of Tralfamadore which take the reader to-and-fro various parts of Billy's life, you'll see that this book isn't so much about war but about how life gets caught up in war. Very offbeat book with loads of great parts, both sad and funny.
Through Billy Pilgrim, an unfit soldier who had a horrible and embarrasing experience in WWII, Vonnegut paints a keen portrait of life. Like all Vonnegut books, this one has a load of great characters, including my favorite Vonnegut character Kilgore Trout (you gotta love his stories). Many of the characters are startlingly close to life. Soom good and some bad. Some make you see how rotten people can be, others make you see how wonderful (I know far too many Paul Lazzaros and far too few Elliot Rosewaters).
When Vonnegut writes from a first-person point of view, the character is narrating, and that's all there is to it. But when Vonnegut writes from a third-person point of view, it's not just narrated, Vonnegut makes sure you know that he himself is narrating, and he's writing this book. This book is third-person, and (as in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions) Kurt shows up in the pages. It really works well with this one. It cements this book's sense of reality when it could so easily float away (the plot does, after all, hinge around aliens in flying saucers).