Few novels I’ve read are so efficient with their page-to-impact ratio as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
It’s slim but brimming with action, philosophy, religion (the Serenity prayer, anyone?) and, apparent to anyone with even a casual knowledge of this book, war. Not just war itself for the sake of war, but the psychological effects and distortions of warfare.
At the same time, at least on the surface, this novel appears to be a zany sci-fi tale of time travel, the planet Tralfamadore, and a fictional sci-fi writer who pops up elsewhere in Vonnegut: Kilgore Trout (whose name is one of my favorites in literature).
What to make of all these mixed-in, mixed-up elements? With an out-of-sequence narrative thrown in, Slaughterhouse-Five could have been a confusing read when you first encountered it in, say, high school, and now you’re afraid of rereading it. Or, if you’ve never read it before, all the jumbled components to it that I’ve just mentioned might be dissuading you from cracking open the cover.
With this novel, one way to enjoy it is to actually embrace its chaotic energy. When I first read it, I realized that I wasn’t getting everything 100% straight . . . but that added to the fun and intrigue of turning its pages (not unlike another classic war novel with a messy narrative order).
Beneath the bombardment of World War II, interplanetary voyages, and leaps across years, Vonnegut is quite reader-friendly thanks to his clear, simple style. Take the opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” Somehow—and I’m betting this is why Vonnegut is considered such a great author—he blends easy, direct writing with deep, complex themes.
In the 21st century, we have a better idea of what war and trauma do to people than in earlier times, and so it’s fascinating to follow along the narrative of Billy Pilgrim through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological concepts that were either in their infancy or nonexistent when this book was published.
Billy is an American POW during World War II. He survives the massive Allied firebombing of that city by hiding in a slaughterhouse (hence the novel’s title).
But the effects of that experience stick to him over the following years. Then Vonnegut throws in the science fiction elements like time travel that I’ve mentioned earlier, which is a brilliant move because it shows how addled Billy’s mind has become—or is the world around him that’s addled, and Billy is just seeking a way to escape it? After all, Billy’s world, like today’s, is full of conflict and a lack of human understanding. (Billy also witnesses many depressing events unfold with those around him, which probably influences his altered mindset even more towards the world).
The result of these themes is an entertaining but also haunting look at a man coping the best way he knows how to when everyone else doesn’t seem to be coping at all.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.