Book Title: Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 215
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 1/25/17
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My impressions: I had a friend in high school who read Slaughterhouse-Five and loved it. He told me I’d like it too since I was a fan of Douglas Adams and other humorous science fiction and fantasy writers, but as he explained the plot of Slaughterhouse-Five, it didn’t sound like anything I wanted to read. After all, this is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim who claims he’s gotten unstuck in time, and who’s simultaneously experiencing many points in his life: being a baby being tickled by his mother; being an unhappy child with a terrifying father; being a prisoner of war in Germany in 1945; being a family man an optometrist after the war; going through a plane crash in the 1960s and losing his wife as she races to see him in the hospital; being abducted by aliens and fathering a child with a movie star in an intergalactic zoo; seeing how own assassination as a martyr in the 1970s in Chicago.
I can say all of that without spoiling much because the purpose of the story isn’t that any of those things happen. In fact, many of those details are revealed in the first chapter, which is a meta-narrative by the author about how the story of Billy Pilgrim came to be written in lieu of a more conventional tale about the bombing of Dresden. The story’s told in a non-sequential narrative as Billy experiences his time skips, and while it’s quite jarring at first, it becomes more comfortable as the story goes on and Billy’s perspective on life challenges the reader’s. After all, when a man can see the totality of his life and knows the broad strokes of it, how interesting can any of his experiences truly be beyond the moments they encompass?
And that’s what’s so brilliant about Slaughterhouse-Five; it takes the problem of storytelling in a situation where a character’s fate is already known and twists it into an interesting mess, adding in the strangeness of his purported abduction and the surreal life he enjoys as an optometrist, husband, father and seeming lunatic following a horrific experience in Dresden.
Another central theme of the story is about how much more exciting it is to know a summary of what happened in science fiction than to read the entire tale. To illustrate this, some of the plot involves a science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout whose books are largely unknown by anyone but Billy and a man he met in the hospital. Trout has great ideas (which may be the basis for Billy’s seeming delusions), but he’s a terrible writer, and his body of work is entirely unrecognized by the world at large. The narrative summarizes many of the stories he’s written, and they sound very interesting as mere ideas. But in execution, they’d be dreadful, just as Billy’s abduction by fourth-dimensional aliens and confinement in a zoo, told in a more conventional manner, would be hard to take seriously.
By the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself deeply invested in the story and the characters, and I even went back and re-read the beginning chapters to confirm to myself that yes, this story is circular. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end; the first chapter could easily be the last, and the moments in Billy’s life exist as points of interest to explore and linger upon, not as a narrative that must be told in sequence.
It occurred to me after reading that Vonnegut essentially wrote a painting, focusing on smaller elements of a larger image and explaining their significance before moving on. This is very much in line with the theme of the aliens’ preferred style of novel, which eschews sequence (since they perceive time differently, sequence has no meaning) and focuses instead on combining beautiful moments together into a pleasing combination.
To me, this book was as good as Cat’s Cradle, but far richer in content and depth. While the story is about many dark and terrifying things in the context of war, it’s also about seeing life from a different perspective that ignores the worst moments and appreciates the best ones. And while it’s often classified as a work of satire, I didn’t find it to be particularly humorous; its comic moments were far overshadowed by its poignant ones.