So it goes: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut [1969]

sh5Even though I try to resist it, avoidance is the Farrant family way. Have something scary or important that needs to be completed? Let’s leave that till the last minute. I am fairly adept at dealing with most of life’s issues now, but there are always moments where I desperately fight the urge to bury my head in the sand.

I have avoided reading Slaughterhouse-Five for years; every year or so I would rediscover it and google the wiki plot summary, deterring myself over and over again. This time I changed tactics, rather than trying to find out what it was about (having duly forgotten again) I decided just to sit down and read the damn thing. Thank goodness I did, because I absolutely bloody loved it.

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.”Synopsis from GoodReads

Do not let the time travel put you off, it is a facilitator for so much more, this is not a sci-fi novel. In fact, I would describe it more of a war novel; as we travel primarily through Billy Pilgrim’s experience of the Second World-War and his time at Dresden. Described as a child’s war, front line soldiers were young men, barely trained or prepared for battle. Battlefield stories, packed with bombs and fighting, are of little interest to me, however, when a story delves into the psychological affects of war, I am hooked. I want to know all about the front line, how the war affected the lives of the soldiers stationed there, during and after. Slaughterhouse-Five serves this purpose marvellously. It also explores the idea of free will – things cannot be changed or altered, they just happen; this throws up interesting ideas on the nature and prevention of war.

During Billy’s time travelling he spends some time on an alien world, where the aliens have the ability to see in four dimensions – this race, the Tralfamadorian, knowing they cannot prevent events or change time choose to hedonistically focus on the good moments and ignore the bad. Billy Pilgrim suffers from depression throughout his life, he does not care if he lives or dies and it is often this disinterest in his own mortality that saves him from death. His experience in the war, where he retreats right into the depths of his own mind, leaving only a hapless shell of a child on the outside, was heartbreaking. Billy’s fatalistic outlook on life makes his mind more open to the concept of the fourth dimension, that life and death are so intertwined neither really matter. Nothing, if there is no free will, really matters at all.

Slaughterhouse-Five engages interesting discussion on the nature of time; that everything happens at once, birth, life, death, all simultaneously existing. I wondered while reading is time travel was a metaphor for the fact that no matter where Billy is in life he is experiencing the trauma of war. If time happens all at once he is at the same time being born and experiencing the pain of Dresden – he is defined by this horrific experience. In order to escape this trauma, when he almost dies in the plane crash he creates an alternative reality – the Tralfamadorian’s to explain the pain and distortion he is experiencing. His inability to address or deal with his trauma manifests itself in a delusion of aliens. As with his war experience, this delusion is equally as ignored.

Needless to say I adored this book, it was well worth the delayed reading and an example that you should never really trust the two hundred word limit of a plot summary.

4 thoughts on “So it goes: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut [1969]

  1. I have been meaning to read more Vonnegut! I’ve read two of his books but don’t really remember too much about them. It definitely sounds intriguing and I’m glad you liked it. I like the question it raises about time.


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