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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
on October 18, 2015
Kurt Vonnegut. Just the mention of his name can have a polarizing effect depending upon which social and political circles you tend to inhabit. Slaughterhouse-Five. His most famous novel, perhaps in reality not as polarizing as one might expect because of it’s misinterpretation by so many readers as an anti-war novel. Published, of course, during the conflict in Vietnam, and, loosely bound to Vonnegut’s eyewitness account of the fire bombings of Dresden Germany during WWII, it’s easy to understand how this anti-war sentiment could take root. By the time it is written the details of the Dresden bombing were still not settled. Many died horrifically for seemingly less than a military purpose with the number of deaths propagandized to be in the 200,000 range by the Nazis (Vonnegut himself wrote 135,000). That number almost doubles the instantaneous deaths at Hiroshima for instance. But those early numbers far exceeded the actual numbers which were closer to 25,000 as later confirmed by German authorities not to mention the other eye witness accounts of the military targets present in Dresden which perhaps made the bombing necessary. Not to belittle the atrocious effects of tons of high explosive and incendiary used against Dresden and other targets during WWII, indeed the deaths during the firebombing of Tokyo, Japan quite exceeded the immediate effects at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I say this not to downplay or apologize for the horrors of war, but to point out that this singular focus on Slaughterhouse-Five, this focus on an anti-war sentiment, distracts us significantly from the far more relevant theme Vonnegut brilliantly illustrated in this book. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, suffers from profound mental illness as do most of the others he writes about. Perhaps those attributes were seeded in war and perhaps some of those Vonnegut possessed himself, however he wrote to us some 20 years after his eyewitness account at Dresden. Should one witness such atrocities one would hope a far speedier indictment would follow. WWII is choke full of reasons to avoid war, Vonnegut need not enter such a fray.
Personally, I did not find the horrors of war (the killing) particularly more disturbing than the mental health of these people whom we become acquainted. Death is prevalent throughout the novel and Vonnegut's technique of using the phrase, “So it goes” after having written about a death, is invoked over 100 times. The Dresden bombing receives a single “So it goes” for the presumed 135,000 dead. The death of his father and the death of his wife each carried the same weight, a single “So it goes”. The barbaric death of a dog at the hands of a psychotic long before the war received the same “So it goes” as did the discovery of the remaining multitude of deaths, at war and at peace, which occur throughout the novel. These deaths were deliberate, accidental, or from natural causes. Vonnegut himself did not seem to discriminate. Thus, his single most powerful and recurring theme in his novel has no discriminatory bias against death in war whatsoever. It is what it is, to totally address his stoic attitude in what can only be described as a detached way.
The case for mental illness however, while perhaps treated in academic circles, primarily in the writings of those seeking a PhD in psychology, are all but ignored within the mainstream. Which by and large, continues to be symptomatic of our society's innate ability to ignore mental illness at all costs...even when it’s staring us in the face and beating on our chest with both fists as Vonnegut has done in Slaughterhouse-Five. Alien’s you say? Somehow Slaughterhouse-Five carries with it the genre of science fiction. Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens after all and dutifully reports back what he has learned about his captors included his detachment from time. Whether or not this book is anti-war, dark humor, or science fiction there are no real Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five. There is no science fiction. There is only the fiction of a very disturbed mind, brought on perhaps, by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now understood to be a scourge in all wars and a subject that should be discussed thoroughly in high schools throughout the world. This book, as others that are interpreted incorrectly, are great introductions to the mental health conversation. Let’s talk about that more and talk about time-travel less.
Five stars for Slaughterhouse-Five. One star for how society interprets and uses the genius of Kurt Vonnegut.
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.
on January 3, 2014
Perhaps I was expecting too much, but then again this is called an American classic and was written by an author who had the extreme experience of being a German POW and living through the Dresden firebombing. As Vonnegut wrote in the beginning, he apparently had great and understandable difficulty in conveying the immensity and emotional impact of Dresden's annihilation. It apparently took him over a decade and many attempts to write a book on the subject. Unfortunately, from my perspective, he simply couldn't convey his true feelings and experience so chose to mention it in brief detached snippets while letting the book drift off in numerous unrelated tangents.
The theme of death is always a popular one and perhaps that, along with the author's having lived through Dresden's destruction, is why this is considered a great and unique book. The only thing even slightly unique I saw, other than the brief first hand account of Dresden, was the alien culture's perspective on time and death. (Yes, the book jumps to the tangent of life on another planet as if in some strained attempt to avoid dealing with real emotions on earth).
Next comes the totally disjointed nature of the book. It is not the creative structure of contemporaries like Kerouac or Thompson. Instead it reads more like a High School student with attention deficit disorder. From my perspective Vonnegut failed terribly to stick with or properly develop the countless characters or plot threads he jumped between. Lastly the prose itself is lacking. I'm still at a loss to understand why this is considered a classic.
Underneath it all, you do have the vague sense that the author was struggling to convey the unimaginable - an event which he never came to terms with himself.