Jan 10, 2008

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become unstuck in time. Unstuck in time, you ask? Allow me to explain. Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller; he somehow developed the ability to randomly be transported between different periods of his life, from his birth to his death and through everything in between. He is also kidnapped by a flying saucer, and transported by an alien race – the Trafalmadorians – back to their home planet, to be exhibited in a zoo.

Through the Trafalmadorians, Billy comes to understand what is happening to him. This alien race can see in four dimensions (the fourth being time, of course), and so they understand that linearity is an illusion – every moment of a person’s life is happening at the same time, always. Because of this, they do not mourn anyone who dies, because they know they are still alive in all the other moments of their lives. All they say is, so it goes.

This is a rotten plot summary – trying to explain the plot of this book is no easy task. Like Billy Pilgrim, we are transported back and forth through the story, moving between the past, the present and the future. And although aliens and time travel play an important role in the story, they are not what this book is about. What this book primarily is about is WW2, and, like any book about war, it is about people.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the name of the place where Billy Pilgrim was held prisoner in Dresden – where he was when the city was destroyed. I’ve come across several different descriptions of the bombing of Dresden in fiction. There’s Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I find them horrifying, and this was no exception. It’s not so much what they say, but what is left unsaid. It’s all the suffering and despair and death and destructions that are hinted at, left between the lines. Because there are things so horrible that mere words will never fully encompass them.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a humorous book. I know that seems incompatible with the above paragraph, but it isn’t. The book is funny and poignant, wise and sad. It mirrors our frailty, our fear, our irrationality, and it does a great job at demonstrating the absurdity of war, and how, with so much death involved, nobody wins.

When I was reading the book, I kept thinking that the writing style reminded me of something or someone – something I really liked. It took me a while to realize that what it reminded me of was (duh) Kurt Vonnegut. I read Cat’s Cradle some three years ago and I hadn’t realized how much it had stuck with me. I think that if I get to know his work better, Vonnegut could become one of my favourite authors. I definitely will get to know his work better.

I love his writing. I love how, in the middle of a seemingly light text, we can find little islands of wisdom and insight, or little images that are all the more moving because they are sudden. Allow me to share a few of my favourite passages:
Her voice was nearly gone, so, in order to hear her, Billy had to put his ear right next to her papery lips. She evidently had something very important to say.
"How..?" she began, and she stopped. She was too tired. She hoped that she wouldn't have to say the rest of the sentence, that Billy would finish it for her.
But Billy had no idea what was on her mind. "How what, Mother?" he prompted.
She swallowed hard, shed some tears. Then she gathered energy from all over her ruined body, even from her toes and fingertips. At last she had accumulated enough to whisper this complete sentence:
"How did I get so old?"
And this, which describes Billy watching a War movie in reverse:

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.
And finally:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.

Reviewed at:
Just a (Reading) Fool
Bold. Blue. Adventure.

23 comments:

Lightheaded said...

I got a copy of this book on sale late last year and will hopefully read it before the first quarter ends. Moreso now with this review.

Vonnegut is indeed funny although I haven't read the more popular books of his; previous to getting this title I only read Timequake and Mother Night. I started Galapagos as well but it seemed to have fallen off my bedside pile so maybe I should search under the bed for it. Hahaha!

And gee, I've read and loved the two other books you mentioned in this post. Which reminds me, I need to write something about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for the challenge I joined.

Chris said...

You know, for some reason this book didn't stand out to me that much thinking back on it, but when I read your review and was really reminded of it and it's details, I remembered how good of a book it was. I loved the second scene that you quoted...the war movie in reverse...it was one of my favorites in the book. I'm glad that you reminded me that I actually DID like this book when I thought that I wasn't nuts about it, because I really should read some more Vonnegut. In fact, now that I went back and read my review, it's quite obvious that I loved it at the time! I guess I should read my own reviews more often :p This is one of Megan's top 3 favorite books by the way.

Rhinoa said...

This sounds really odd, like too much plot crammed into one book. You enjoyed it though so that's a good thing. Will tell Alex about it and see if it appeals to him.

Debi said...

What a fantastic review! I remember loving this book, but your review really brought it back to life for me. I definitely think it's time for a reread. And while I'm at it, I ought reread his others, too...because I can't think of a single one I didn't like.

Andi said...

I've never read this book!!! I must. It's on the TBR, of course, so now I just need to pick. it. up.

Lisa said...

I recently received this book as part of the Easton Press Great Books of the 20th Century. I haven't read it, yet but keep meaning to. It is not my typical genre of book, but your review makes me think I may actually like it. Either way, I need to read it because it is a classic.

Nymeth said...

Lightheaded: If you like those two I mentioned, I think you'll like this too. Also, I often see it being compared to Catch-22!

Chris: I found your review and read it, and it definitely sounds like you liked it at the time. It's funny how our perception of a book changes over time, though, isn't it? Both for better and for worse. Megan has excellent taste!

Rhinoa: The structure of the book is odd, but somehow it works. It's a really short book too. I guess it doesn't feel crammed because he doesn't actually describe all these events in detail... we are given a scene here, another there, and we fill in the gaps. The plot ends up being the least important things about it… it’s more the writing, and the things it says about people and war and stuff.

Debi: Which ones do you think I should read next?

Andi: Do pick it up! I can definitely see you enjoying it a lot.

Lisa: This is not my typical genre either…and just by reading the plot summary I’d probably go “meh”. But I’d heard great things about it, so I gave it a chance. I’m very glad I did!

Iliana said...

I can't believe I've never read any Vonnegut! I think that when I finally get to one of his books it really should be this one. I didn't know anything about it really but your review of it makes it sound very interesting.

Carl V. said...

It is odd how something can enter one's conscience and still be a mystery. I've known of this book for as long as I can remember but had NO IDEA what it was about. It sounds fascinating and is yet another 'classic' that I need to get to one day. I enjoyed reading your review, nice job!

baddict said...

Hey there, I just wandered over here from Pfeiffer Booknotes...and I'll be back on regular basis now!

On another note, I had no idea despite how much I've seen it around that SLAUGHTER-HOUSE-FIVE was such a sci-fi book. Now that I do, I'm all the more intrigued.

Literary Feline said...

I've seen this title thrown around again and again, but I never really knew what the book was about until I read your review. It sounds like a very interesting book, and one I need to read. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth.

I have another of his books in my TBR collection at the moment. Mother Night, I believe it's called.

Megan said...

This falls into the category of books that I've so often heard the title talked about but never actually knew what the book was about. Thanks for reviewing this and for sharing such great quotes. I'll definitely have to read this one.

Debi said...

I really wish I could remember them better (can it really be 20+ years since I've read them...ouch.) Though I honestly couldn't tell you much about them, the ones that have stuck with me most, that I remember really, really enjoying would be Galapagos and Breakfast of Champions. In fact, I put Galapagos on one of challenge lists, because I really wanted to see if I would love it as much today. If I'm not mistaken (and I might be), Welcome to the Monkey House is short stories, so that might be fun to try to. Though I don't remember loving it, I don't think I really ever read anything of his that I didn't like.

Nymeth said...

Iliana: I hope you enjoy it! It is very interesting, and very thought-provoking too.

Carl: I've had the same happen to me with several classics. I'm glad to have helped!

Baddict: Hello and welcome! I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to pick it up :)

Literary Feline: I'm glad to have helped! I haven't read Mother Night, but Vonnegut seems to be a safe bet regardless of the book.

Megan: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

Debi: Thanks for your help! Breakfast of Champions and Galapagos seem to be universally praised, so I think I'll go with one of those.

jenclair said...

It has been years since I've read S-5, and what stays with me is Dresden burning. As usual, I researched that a bit - what a horror. And of course, "So it goes."

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I should read that again. I read it twice when a teen. 25 years ago.

Nymeth said...

Jenclair: That part really is horrifying. Until I came across it in fiction, I didn't know much about the bombing of Dresden either. I'm glad that books like this make sure it's not forgotten.

Glenn: Hello! This is one I see myself revisiting in the future too.

jpderosnay said...

this was recommended to me by a friend when i was at university, and 'cause i really respected him i'd always intended to read it.

but what i didn't know was how cool the premise is!! wow! if i was going to read it before, now i'm gonna read it sooner!

thanks for the good review!

Stephanie said...

This is one of my favorite books!! And it didn't hit me until the very end. Through the entire thing, I just kept thinking it was so strange. When I finally closed the cover, all I could think of was what a wonderful book it was!!

Kudos to Vonnegut for such a fantastic book....and to you too for a great review!!

Trish said...

I have wanted to read this book for a while, but I never really knew what it was about (other than sci-fi elements). After reading your review, I really want to read it (even if you think the summary was rotten--hee hee). Sounds intriguing!

Bold Blue Adventure said...

I just mooched this book from my parent's bookshelf. I've moved it up in my TBR pile, thanks to your lovely review.

Nymeth said...

JP: Do yourself and your friend a favour and read it. NOW :P I can definitely see you really enjoying it.

Stephanie: I know what you mean. After finishing it I started looking at the whole thing with different eyes. It really is a remarkable book. I need to read more Vonnegut!

Trish: I'm glad my summary was helpful :P

Bold Blue Adventure: I hope you enjoy it!

Phil said...

Very nice blog and nice post! I had read this book in high school -- a very very long time ago :) -- and started re-reading it a few nights ago. I love it as much now as I did then! I was searching for quotes from it to send a friend when I found your blog. I hope others who have not read this yet do so, and enjoy it as much as you and I do, "if the accident will."