Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
From Amazon: "Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Don't let the ease of reading fool you--Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, '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...' Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority."
I wanted to read this book simply because it was one of the classics I'd always heard about but somehow missed reading in school. (Catch-22 and To Kill a Mockingbird are on that list too.) Once I started reading it, I had a hard time putting it down. It's an easy read, and a difficult one all at once: well-written but confusing. The time-traveling that Billy Pilgrim does is however not at all confusing, and I can't express how impressive that is; his story is all over the place but always makes sense. And knowing that the author really experienced parts of this story makes it even more powerful. It gets confusing though when some characters seem both real and caricatured at the same time, or when Pilgrim's belief in alien abduction and time travel start melding with sci-fi books he's read, or events that have happened to him, and it's never clear if he's truly experiencing time travel or if it's all some kind of post-traumatic stress after his experiences in World War II. I have a feeling that, for the point Vonnegut was trying to make, it doesn't really matter.
I have to agree with those who say this isn't just an anti-war novel. It is anti-war, but it doesn't brow-beat, and it seems to me to be more about the absurdity and cruelty of people in general, not just during wartime. To take the Tralfamadorians as an extension of humanity, they refuse to observe anything that upsets them; they only pay attention to times that are beautiful and happy. And in doing so, they refuse to stop the destruction of the universe, which is caused by one of their own. They know it will happen, and how; but they don't want to think about it. This idea can certainly be applied to war, and especially to World War II in more ways than one; but it can also be easily applied to anyone in everyday life.
I wish I'd read this book in high school, but I'm glad I read it now. There are some cases of swearing and sexuality, so I wouldn't recommend it to a younger audience. But otherwise, I recommend it.