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Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Slaughterhouse Five is another of those books that I've known about for years but somehow never read, and am reading at last thanks to Books 1001. In saying that it is a very good book I'm merely agreeing with what I believe to be the general opinion.

It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who was present as a prisoner of war at the bombing of Dresden in early 1945. We learn a little about his life before the war, a lot about the period in and around Dresden during the weeks preceding the bombing, and something about his subsequent career as an optometrist, his marriage, his family, the death of his wife, and his eventual senility. But these things are not offered in chronological order. Instead the book leaps around in time, telling of a war experience, leaping to Billy's marriage or anniversary, then leaping back to the war or to his childhood, and so on. Consequently the war experiences seem never to be left behind; we have a sense of someone who has experienced and observed horrific events and whose subsequent life is haunted by those events. Nowadays we might say (though Vonnegut does not) that Billy suffers from PTSD.

Slaughterhouse Five is usually described as an anti-war novel. It certainly is that, and one thing that makes it effective as an anti-war novel is that there is virtually no explicit authorial judgment passed on the events being described. We are of course free to pass judgment, to be horrified, to be morally outraged, and indeed we can't avoid doing so, but the author merely offers a series of occurrences, described in unemotional, non-judgmental language, and says, over and over, "So it goes." And, of course, that is how it went, and how it still goes in far too many places--Syria, Iraq, parts of Africa and other places--which is another reason (or perhaps it's just the same reason) to be outraged and horrified.

The non-chronological presentation is effective in my opinion. The principal flaw of the book, however, is the science fiction framework that encloses it. The book begins "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck from in time." We are asked to swallow the idea that the story is not merely told in non-chronological order, but that instead of simply recalling his experiences at Dresden, or his marriage, or whatever, Billy actually travels back and forth in time (eg. "Billy traveled in time back to the veterans hospital again." "Billy blinked in 1965, traveled in time to 1958 . . . Billy blinked in 1958, traveled to 1961"). This absurd conceit adds nothing, but fortunately (and surprisingly) does not get seriously in the way of the book. We still have a story whose elements are simply presented in non-chronological order.

We are also asked to swallow the allegation that Billy is kidnapped by invaders in a flying saucer and transported through a time warp to Tralfamadore, 446,120,000,000,000,000 miles from earth, where he is displayed in a zoo. This episode, too, is absurd, and adds nothing to the book that I can see (The exchange with the Tralfamadorians about the inevitability of war is a possible exception to that judgment, but the idea could be presented in other ways, too, and I don't see that the science fiction setting makes it more persuasive or effective.) Fortunately, the Tralfamadorian part of the book is brief, and like the time traveling, it doesn't seriously undermine the rest of the book for me.

I do recommend this book to anyone who like me has managed not to read it before.</l-j-cut>


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 22nd, 2014 03:42 pm (UTC)
I thought it was a good book, but not one I really loved. (My review.) It's kind of like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - deceptively deep, cleverly absurdist, and a cult favorite that people either adore or go "meh."
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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