Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those books that I put off reading – maybe the title scared me off. When I finally read it in 2014, I ended up rating it 5/5.
I really loved this book – it’s fascinating to see Billy Pilgrim’s life story unfold as a series of vignettes at several points in time. The time-travel element contributes to the sense of both coping with the reality of everyday life and processing the horrifying memories of war – in this case the destruction of Dresden in WWII. It took Vonnegut years to get this book together and the only way that he could tell his story was through this character and this method of storytelling. It’s a book that is, on one hand, an absurd and fantastic journey, and on the other hand, is painfully poetic memoir.
The book follows Billy Pilgrim, a young man who doesn’t really fit in anywhere and is a soldier in the last year of WWII. He is captured and endures awful conditions. He and the other POWs are cleaning the windows in Dresden one day and spending the night sheltered in the slaughterhouse while bombs fall above. When they emerge from the meat locker days later, once the bombing has stopped, they found total destruction. Buildings were pulverized and a city decimated. As if that was not enough, the POWs helped to clear out bodies and clean up the city. How can that not change a person? How can people see and do horrific things and then come back to regular life?
The book looks at the lines between life and death, between reality and fantasy, and between internal and external processing of information. Billy processes everything internally. He dealt with his pain through time travel and trips to an alien world – he is abducted by aliens who try to help him understand life on Earth. He is half-dead when in the war and half-alive when he is back at home and working as an optometrist. Billy’s family didn’t know the details and perhaps didn’t care to know (though his wife asked about the war). The lengths that Billy goes to as a means of coping are in some ways impressive – he figures out a way to move forward in life even as he sometimes is disconnected from reality – but it is also sad that he has to go to these lengths and make it through on his own.
Billy’s mantra of “so it goes” when someone dies reminds the reader of the relationship between life and death. It’s like a bell toning when a person dies and highlights the importance of noting each death. This acknowledgement is coupled with the hope that something of the person lives on through time, allowing us to keep them close. The Dresden deaths, deaths of family and all the others along the way are noted and mourned. The aliens appear, using the 4th dimension (time), to do away with death by positing that no one really dies in the context of time.
This is an anti-war book. The senseless destruction of war is a primary theme. The loss of people and homes, and the daily grind of life are conveyed through an underlying sadness in the book. It also spoke to that generation of soldiers who came home and didn’t talk about their experiences. On one hand, it’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit; on the other hand, it’s a sad commentary on mental health care delivery, on expectations that men shouldn’t be emotional, and on the public’s relative ease with moving on without acknowledging the sacrifice and scarring of war. Yet, the book acknowledges a certain inevitability of war and death by citing event like the assassinations in 1963 and 1968 and the Vietnam body counts.
This story reminded me of several other books – but not in a bad way. It was like remembering friends (Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Pnin and even Dickens’s Great Expectations were some of the books that came to mind as I read this book). Vonnegut is like that for me – he evokes other things in kind of a magical way. It is not only a wonderful book, but it grabbed me emotionally and broke my heart.