Mini Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut

Dial Press
Originally released in 1969
275 pages

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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."

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humor.

I have no idea what I just read. For the longest time, I had no idea what Slaughterhouse-Five was about, only that it was a classic that I needed to read. It had been on my to-read list for a really long time and then I learned that it was science fiction and involved time travel. That bumped it up even higher on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until I needed a classic to fill in a category for the science fiction challenge for me to finally pick it up.

And I have no idea what I just read. Yeah, there’s time travel. Sort of. It’s more of one man’s consciousness experiencing his life out of order. Instead it’s very much an anti-war novel that happens to have aliens and weird time travel. Most of the story revolves around the character’s time wandering Germany and his eventual capture. It’s all told in at an arm’s length from an unnamed narrator that’s meant to be Vonnegut. Being held at arm’s length would make this a really wonderful book to write 20 page term papers on, but doesn’t make it a very exciting read.

But what made it just a “meh” read for me was the use of short, choppy paragraphs and story segments that placed a sizeable narrative pause between scenes rather than allowing anything to flow together. It essentially meant the story had no pacing and was really just scenes barely tied together by nothing more than the same main character.

I see the value of Slaughterhouse-Five as a classic and a touch point of the science fiction literary tradition, but apparently I’m not that “deep” anymore. I want fun and pacing and a story rather than a character story tied into an anti-war message. I’m glad I can finally mark it off my to-read list, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one.