Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller – these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world’s great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.
The blurb doesn’t give much away but how to describe this book, it’s been a challenge for this reviewer but I persevered after much thought and have scraped the surface in a bid to whet your appetite…
Upon starting to read the story I hoped it wouldn’t be another Catcher in the Rye, a book I loathed and found extremely overrated. I can imagine this book splits readers’ opinions as well, with its often repetitive phrases and cynical outlook.
I feared reading this book, as it is a big hit with students and so for that unreasonable reason alone I have avoided it but having read the reasons why people keep trying to ban it – and finding them all laughable – I succumbed to its prose. People seem afraid of good literature and messages contrary to their own but why censor something (with simplistic argument) when you could talk about like reasonable adults? Probably because the would be ban mongers are not those sort of people.
As far as conflict books go, this is up there with the razor-sharp satire of the magnificent Catch 22 as anti-war material. I find it interesting that the US has some of the best anti-war literature of the 20th century, widely read all around the world yet still finds itself mired in conflicts around the world, it’s a case study begging to be written methinks.
Billy Pilgrim is an awkward and pathetic protagonist whose not always likeable but is extremely fascinating, there are strong hints to him having a psychological disorder suffered after witnessing the aftermath of the Dresden bombings. However that would be to over simplify a man whose can move through time and lives his life in a different order, real or imagined, his attempt to cope with life and just stagger through passively, powerlessly accepting his fate should endear him to everybody as we’ve all been there at sometime or another. Billy is at once likeable and unlikable and trying to quantify the life of the man from the jigsaw pieces is endlessly fascinating and is perhaps best looked at through our own actions.
Vonnegut gives an understated depiction of the inherent randomness of cruelty and death in war, it’s absurd and unapologetic and extremely readable. As the author was a witness to the Dresden bombings himself, a lot of the details in the book have an even stronger resonance than just pure fiction and the same question must always be asked of anybody in a war zone; how can you be prepared for something like the DB, the massacre of thousands of people, an incident of horror in a war filled with many atrocities?
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.
At times the events seem as farcical as they do terrifying yet show off the insanity of the choices made in extreme situations that individuals face. The shadow of that terrible bombing hangs over the book, it seems like all strands ultimately lead to and from that incident, like it was some sort of cruel fate that was foretold long ago and destined to scar so many lives.
I haven’t even mentioned the aliens yet, which in many other books would be jarring and dilute from the seriousness of such a topic, yet oddly these sections do work. Perhaps they are a product of Billy’s broken mind and perhaps not but to go into that and the rest of the history of the man would deprive the new reader of the joys of discovery and this book is as emotionally varied and charged as they come
Originally the repetition of certain phrases annoyed me but being used in widely different (yet also the same) contexts is a clever literary device. Humour and pathos run right through this raucously satirical and disconcertingly dark comedy/tragedy and make this a truly great book in my humble opinion. It’s very much a book of its time and is littered with sex and swearing which adds to its incendiary nature.
It’s hard to fit this story into a specific genre but there in lies the beauty of the book, part war story/drama/sci-fi with plenty of themes which are as old as human civilisation itself and just like us its disjointed, bounces around a lot and isn’t tightly plotted but ranges around, getting to where it needs to be in its own particular time. There are some sublimely poignant set pieces such as the strong imagery of watching a war film backwards are particularly stand out in a book full of stand out scenes. suffice to say I urge you all to go and read this book, it won’t be for everyone but it will prove an unforgettable read.
Of course it happened’, Trout told her. ‘If I wrote something that hadn’t happened, and I tried to sell it, I could go to jail. That’s fraud.