Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut

I had somewhat mixed feelings about this book. I may be living under a rock, but I started reading it with absolutely no idea what it was about. I’m sure I read the synopsis at some point, months or years ago when I first decided I wanted to read it, but I didn’t remember it by the time I actually read it. (For the benefit of my new followers: I try to go into a new book knowing as little about it as possible, which means not reading the synopsis immediately before reading the book. I feel like they often reveal too much or make it too easy to figure out what’s going on and spoil half the fun.)

 

The story-telling method is a little unique, and a little scattered. The bulk of the story tells us about a man, Billy Pilgrim, who was a chaplain’s assistant in World War II and was captured by the Germans. The time frame of the story takes place pretty much over the entire course of Billy’s life, primarily during and after the war, but it’s not told in sequential order. The premise is that Billy has become “unstuck” in time and he travels randomly to different points in his life, experiencing different events. As readers, we travel randomly with him.

 

In most cases, we’re told about events long before we actually travel to those times with Billy to experience them. This made the story seem a little too predictable at times. On the other hand, the unpredictable jumping around to different times in Billy’s life did help keep things more interesting. There’s some intentional repetition in the book of various phrases, most notably “so it goes”. I’m not normally a big fan of repetition but, in this case, it didn’t bother me. I thought it was a nice artistic choice that actually added a little more nuance and character to the story.

 

I really was not a fan of the main character, Billy. He was a determinist, believing that things will always happen a certain way and we have no control over it. Whether something good happens or something bad happens, that was what was always supposed to happen and there was no way to change it. So Billy, not surprisingly, pretty much just sat back and let life happen to him. He didn’t seem to have any real opinions about anything, he had no apparent motivation to improve his life or that of others, and he was a constant burden on other people who had to watch out for him because he wouldn’t watch out for himself. I wanted to reach into my Kindle and give him a good shake! At one point the book quotes the Serenity Prayer and then we’re told “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”

 

It’s made pretty clear that this book is intended to be an anti-war book. I don’t disagree, but I don’t feel like it was an extraordinary anti-war book. I tend to feel like any book that touches on war could be considered an anti-war book if it presents the war in a remotely realistic manner. But, today, I think nearly anybody you speak with would tell you that they think war is bad, that it’s filled with agony and excessive atrocities, and that it would be better if we would all just live in peace. The point on which people are more likely to disagree is whether or not war is sometimes necessary in spite of its consequences, and they would disagree about what qualifies as “necessary”. The book really didn’t address anything along those lines. Of course, this was written in 1968, so my perceptions today are probably very different from those of readers when the book was first published.

 

Although this is a somewhat older book, it was very accessible. It was a short and easy read, and it held my attention easily. There were a few older terms that gave me pause (such as “rumpus room”), but they were usually easy to understand in context. Reading on a Kindle where you can easily do a Wiki lookup on things is definitely helpful, though. I had to do Wiki lookups on a couple historical figures that were mentioned.

 

There were some pretty funny lines in the book, and the whole thing was written with a sort of sardonic tone that I enjoyed. People who enjoy historical stories set around World War II but don’t like science fiction might enjoy this book pretty well. I’m actually not convinced that I just read a science fiction book, despite the fact that most people seem to categorize it that way.

There was some ambiguity about what was really going on with the main character (time travel or mental illness), with evidence to support both viewpoints, and it was left up to the reader to decide. I personally found the mental illness theory more believable in the context of the story.

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