Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five

Title:  Slaughterhouse Five

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Review by Jenny Toni Andrews 

Originally published in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut’s renowned novel merges sci-fi adventure, war chronicle, autobiography, and satire. Hilarious, heart-breaking, ridiculous and real, the lively metafiction is as punchy and relevant today as it ever was.

Opening Slaughterhouse 5, you expect to find a time traveller. It’s what you’re promised in the preface. It’s what you’re sold by the blurb. Instead, you’re met with a writer whose trying to tell a story. It’s the story of his struggling to write a book about the allied bombing in Dresden in 1945 and, as you are abruptly passed from moment to disjointed moment, it becomes clear that the narrator is struggling to make sense of his experiences of war on paper. Just as you become invested, the writer abandons his plan, and instead, writes the story of Billy Pilgrim – a man who exists outside of time, thanks to alien intervention.

The remainder of the book is made up of Billy’s life in sporadic moments. In one such moment, Billy is plucked out of his daily life by aliens, and transported to the planet Tralfamadore. Here, time is not experienced in the same way. Every experience exists simultaneously and inevitably. As Billy’s life unfolds, it grows clear that the writer -be that Vonnegut or the character from the opening – has never truly travelled to far from his original subject, as abstract and bizarre as the second plot may seem. The time-hopping, universe-spanning tale of Billy Pilgrim creates an approach to the subjects the writer wishes to cover that is personal enough to ring true, yet detached enough to allow it to be shared with the reader.

It’s strange. The approach is impersonal, but the book is filled with emotion, and is a moving read. Vonnegut ends paragraphs about the most mundane of human experiences, with sudden interludes of pure tragedy.

Irony, nostalgia, unfairness, honesty – all combine to create a heart-breaking book, short, and shattering. And yet, the tale is comic, too. Ridiculous situations, lost-in-translation transactions, and wry observation raise the mood of the story, only to slice through it again with the bleak and the painful over the course of a handful of words.

Dresden

The plot is at times so inconcrete that it threatens to escape the pages like smoke. What anchors it, grounds it, is the bombing of Dresden. Here, at the lynchpin of the novel, Billy and the writer briefly share a scene, passing figures in a POW camp on the edges of the main city, days before the bombs fall. From the side-lines, the writer achieves shat he set out to; he writes a book about the bombing of Dresden, framed by the life of Billy Pilgrim, in flux, allowing glimpses at the dust and debris, but never lingering.

The Tralfamadorian structure of a story offers a twist to tragedy. What happens has already happened, will happen, is always happening, and, in perspective, so is everything else. Fixed but fleeting, the worst moments become part of a woven fabric, rather than isolated events, and even death becomes a part of life in flux, rather than a finite destination.

In this way, Vonnegut’s model, removes goals, outcomes, and purpose. Life becomes existence for the sake of existing. Billy doesn’t have to do anything but move from moment to moment, the writer’s attempts to write become his story. Everything is passing us by, and returns again, a comforting thought. There’s happiness, sadness, tragedy and comedy. As Billy says “so it goes”.

Review by Jenny Toni Andrews

If you liked this book, try…

*”The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North.

 Published in 2014, North’s novel bends time and space, playing with the chronology of real-life figures and historical events, to create a truly compelling read.

*”The Man in the High Castle” by Phillip K. Dick.

A strange and dark book, filled with the intertwined lives of a mix of characters. In an alternative world, where Germany and Japan emerge from WWII with empires, Dick plays with the history we know, and the history he unfolds, to craft a narrative of intrigues and excitement. A definite page-turner.

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