- Audible Audiobook
- Listening Length: 5 hours and 53 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: HarperAudio
- Audible.com Release Date: November 7, 2003
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0000YSH2Y
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Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Yet, somehow, I kept missing what is no doubt one of his greatest books, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Surely everybody now knows Vonnegut’s take on the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II while Vonnegut was a prisoner of war.
The genius is that the story Vonnegut tells resembles war itself: a kaleidoscope of insanity, a series of Cubist paintings set in motion, with little apparent rhyme or reason. Vonnegut seems to have written himself into the story, though the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is presumably made up. One would assume this of Billy’s adventures: Randomly slipping in and out of time, visiting with an extraterrestrial race from the planet Tralfmadore that kept him in a zoo where he mated with a young starlet, and so on.
Billy is, truth be told, like most of us: Nondescript, mainly ineffectual, stumbling through a series of random events swirling around us in confusing ways. Much of the book consists of events during World War II – leading up to the firebombing of Dresden and its aftermath, though they mingle with Billy’s life before and after the war.
Vonnegut does offer a few observations, though they can be depressing. One of my favorites is: “…there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.” In a similar vein, but less depressing: “The nicest veterans … I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”
One of the things I like about Vonnegut is how he often provides a philosophy that sounds as if it should be true. In this book it is the teachings of the extraterrestrials. Billy says at one point: “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”
I haven’t decided yet if that passage is depressing or not.
And there is this piece of Tralfamadoran advice: “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”
Actually, that might indeed be pretty good advice.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is full of such moments.
Or, as Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”
The truth of the matter is that it all sums up to nothing. In Slaughterhouse Five, we explore the age-old question of fate versus free will; in Vonnegut's view, there is only fate. Our decisions, actions, and interactions all add up to moments that are as they were meant to be, regardless if we think we have the capacity to change them.
This futility of action on pre-determined events sums up Vonnegut's view on war - it is a futile and senseless game, where one can meander in and out, unscathed, while others who tried so hard to change the tide of the battle die by the hundreds of thousands. This view of the lack of necessity of war became so particularly clear to me in this passage, where Pilgrim (Vonnegut's protagonist) describes a war film run in reverse, where destruction is neatly vacuumed up into the device of it's deliverance, where all humanity, (including Hitler) ages in reverse to become babies, and ..."conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed." The passage is beautifully written, showing the destructive power of war reversed, simply with a different perspective. Even more astounding, however, in this reverse timeline, is the return of all humans to the root of Adam and Eve as "perfect people". Vonnegut paints a stark contrast between God's creation of perfection, and Hitler's war machine of destruction in an attempt to achieve the same goal through the creation of an "Aryan" people.
Whether you agree with Vonnegut's view on war does not diminish his artful exploration of it, fate, and our purpose of existence (or lack there-of.) Worth reading.
Unlike a lot of war books I've read, this one doesn't really try to show what it was like to be there. Instead, the focus is on the long-lasting effects on those who were there. How they are forever changed and damaged by their wartime experiences. I think this is part of why I loved it. Vonnegut doesn't drag you through the horrific details of the characters' experiences, so in that sense you are spared. You can keep looking. You don't have to turn your head. Some of the worst moments are told with a quiet levity: the joke's on us, so to speak.
The refrain of "So it goes" was a powerful one. It provided just enough distance and humor from the events to make them bearable to read. It conveyed the helplessness we all feel in the face of tragedy and pain, but also the hopefulness of "life goes on" afterwards.
The narrative structure is unusual. At the beginning we meet a narrator who says he wants to write a book about his experiences in Dresden, so he goes to interview an old war buddy and they talk about Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come unstuck in time and has been abducted by aliens, or so he says. The rest of the narrative bounces all over time, from before the war, during the war, after the war and back again, following Billy as he time travels. The narrator himself mostly disappears, leading me to wonder if he really is Billy himself, at least metaphorically.
This jumping around in time was beautifully controlled and allowed Vonnegut to draw parallels and connections between disparate events in Billy's life. The overall theme of the book, at least the one I took away, is about moments in time and our relationship to them.
Beautiful. Sad. Funny. Just like life.
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This is like 100 Years of Solitude meets Gilligan’s Island.