My first reaction after reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is that the 215 pages of text are very readable, but the narrative is not simple. Any story about the effects of war is not simple. This book is also a metafiction—-the first chapter, for instance, is a preface, a long one. So expect to be rewarded by the intimacy of the author explaining to the reader why he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five and how he wrote it in such a way that makes sense to him.
The story starts with Billy Pilgrim who goes to war as a chaplain’s assistant and on an assignment, finds himself caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, which he barely survives. He has no proper weapon and clothing and suffers from shock, from exhaustion, from the general ill effects of war so he insists during the escape to be left alone on the field to sleep or dream or just to stop moving. He wants to die, in short. But instead, he becomes a prisoner of war and a slaughterhouse number five in Dresden, Germany is to be his new home.
If this book was conventionally constructed, the climax would be the bombing of Dresden or the plane crash, both of which Billy again survives. But because this is also a story of Billy’s time travel adventures, the climax is irrelevant. In its place are moments in Billy’s life, arranged in such a way to suggest the jumping from time to time, from past to present and vice versa.
It is clever. It is perfect. It does what Vonnegut intends to do, this non-linear storytelling.
We get a sense, we begin to understand the sad reality of Billy’s life after the war. The inescapable memories combined with the heartbreaking justification of their occurrence in his mind makes this novel worthy of its message: The cost of war is not the loss of human life. But the loss of humanity of those who survive it.
One of my favorite passages was when the post-war Billy asked the Tralfamadorians this question, made more poignant and revealing because of his obvious disconnect from reality:
So tell me a secret so I can take it back to Earth to save us all: How can a planet live at peace?
I think the whole of mankind will benefit if we ask that question from time to time. Solutions are many. But it’s the asking that must be done first.
And the barbershop quartet. How can I forget about the barbershop quartet after this novel? Just when you thought that Billy was enjoying himself, acting like a normal husband celebrating his wedding anniversary, images of war haunt him in the most unexpected moments.
This is one of the greatest modern novels I’ve read. I don’t want to spoil it for you I’ve said enough. Read it for the art. Read it for the soul. It has both.
I’ve been curious about Kurt Vonnegut’s books since I found them in an obscure shelf at a bookstore during my mad new-book-buying years. His name sounded foreign enough, his book covers were strange, and the titles stranger still. Who writes a book called Breakfast of Champions, if it’s not about Alexander the Great’s breakfast of raw eggs, honey, wine, etcetera? Clearly, there’s a hint of underlying humor, only, the critical or ironic kind.
But if Vonnegut’s books can wink and produce a lopsided grin, I wouldn’t be persuaded until I became familiar with his writing tips and only after I’ve read a letter by Kurt to a school board who ordered that copies of Slaughterhouse-Five be burned. You can read the letter here.
So it goes.