Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been on my radar for quite a while. From what I can see it’s been hyped to hell and gone, and while I enjoyed it, the novel didn’t exactly blow my socks off. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great little book – it was – but to claim that it’s one of the best 100 ever written, according to the Modern Library, is pushing it a bit, IMHO.
The premise is simple: we follow the non-linear narrative as told by Billy Pilgrim, sandwiched between the author-narrator’s opening and closing chapters – so from that perspective, it makes for an unexpectedly different read if you’re used to going from A to Z.
The circumstances surrounding the bombing of Dresden during World War II is central to the story, not only the author-narrator’s fascination with it, but also the role it plays in Billy’s life. What I liked about Billy’s narrative is that we’re never sure whether his alien abduction and apparent time-travelling has any basis in reality, and I’m quite a fan of this sort of ambiguity. For all we know, the delusions of aliens and time-travelling may well be Billy’s response to the trauma he experienced in Dresden.
On top of this, Vonnegut makes some poignant observations about the human condition, about the ephemeral nature of life and its absurdity, so in a sense, I’d peg this as a bit of existentialist literature. The prose is easy to dip into, matter of fact in recounting the sometimes hard-hitting events. War is not pretty. Human suffering is a reality of this life, whether we die in our hundreds of thousands as per Dresden, or if we die slowly and alone. Sometimes we just need to live in the moment, and enjoy a patch of sunshine when we can. It’s all going to end the same way.