Sunday, December 13, 2015

Slaughterhouse-Five Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Delacorte
Genre: Literary Science Fiction, Humor
Series: Standalone
Pages: 215

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Slaughterhouse-Five has spawned a number of classic phrases and expressions such as “poo-tee-weet,” an expression said by birds in the novel that has come to represent the lack of intelligent dialogue that could ever be said about war.   “So it goes,” is another Vonnegut phrase that is associated with this book, as that expression is used after every single death, whether it be physical or metaphorical, in the novel.

Besides its cultural impact, Slaughterhouse-Five contains profound wisdom and haunting real-life experiences that give readers insight to the horrors of war.  The book also combines two genres that seemingly have nothing to do with one another (science fiction and autobiography) in a way that has a profound emotional impact on readers.  Slaughterhouse-Five is not just a great science fiction book, it is one of the greatest books ever written.

Understanding that Slaughterhouse-Five blends two very different literary genres together is paramount to getting anything out of this book.  Slaughterhouse-Five primarily follows the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come unstuck in time (the science fiction part of the story).  A large portion of Billy’s story takes place during World War 2, specifically during the bombing of Dresden (the autobiographical part of the story), which Kurt Vonnegut was apart of.

The first chapter, which is the only chapter told from the view point of Vonnegut, explains why he wrote this book  The subsequent chapters follow Billy Pilgrim a World War 2 veteran, who was at Dresden when it was bombed.  Billy’s narrative frequently jumps around from past to present.  Depending where in time Billy is during the book, readers get to learn about his experiences in World War 2, his family life after the war, and his experience encountering an extra-terrestrial race called the Tralfamadorians who are also unstuck in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five examines a number of issues related to the nature of humanity.  One of the most significant issues explored is horrors of war and the fact that nothing intelligent can be said about them. Vonnegut will periodically break the fourth wall to mention what he was personally doing or experiencing during the World War 2 sequences of the book.  These war stories inserted in the book are filled with suffering, and they are what primarily contributes to the heavy emotional feelings that come along with reading this story.

Kurt Vonnegut’s insertion of himself in the novel never lets the science fiction element carry the historical aspect of the story away, or make light of the reality that was the bombing of Dresden.  Further grounding the truth and seriousness of Vonnegut’s experience in the war is the title of the book, which is named after the actual slaughterhouse that Vonnegut survived the bombing of Dresden in.

Another issue explored throughout the novel is the idea of free will.  Vonnegut takes up the position, via the Tralfamadorians, that free will is an illusion.  The Tralfamadorians can see into the past and present.  They know when the world will end, and how it began.  The don’t care to stop the universe from ending because they believe the end is really only just the beginning, and thus fate is believed to be predetermined.

One of the key ideas the Tralfamdorians have is that people, and all living creatures, in the universe are all alive simultaneously.  In other words, every person throughout history is in fact living at the same time. Once a person dies that person’s life begins again.  In this way no one is truly ever dead.
In regards to free will, since everything is predetermined, the idea that a person has choices in life, or can control their own lives is an illusion.  These new ideas have a profound impact on Billy’s life as he tries to get other people to see his new way of looking at living.

Despite the dark undertones, Vonnegut is still able to allow his dark style of humor to shine through.  A lot of the dark humorous situations in the book center around a failed science fiction novelist named Kilgore Trout.  Vonnegut’s descriptions of Trout’s stories are often very cynical, but will still make you laugh.   Trout’s stories critique society, and have readers thinking about their deeper implications.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterpiece.  It’s serious, funny, horrible, but most importantly it’s powerful.  The way a war story could be told was changed by Vonnegut’s writing of this novel.  The raw emotion of Vonnegut’s war time experiences, and the philosophical ideas that explore the nature of free will makes Slaughterhouse-Five a book that’s overwhelming emotionally and intellectually.

Score: 10

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