Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Perpetual Man

Tim James
Jun 13, 2006
I cannot remember why I suddenly decided to read Slaughterhouse Five, I think I might have seen an article written about it, or perhaps the bombing of Dresden during World War II that mentioned it. Whatever it might have been it was enough to capture my interest and I picked it up.

I had heard about the book before, after all it is the type of title that stands out.

Slaughterhouse 5 or The Children’s Crusade A Duty-Dance with Death.

In the real world author Vonnegut was a member of a group of American prisoners of war, who were put to work in the German city of Dresden. They were present during the Allied bombing of the city, something the writer claims with some justification, was more devastating and horrendous than the atomic blast that destroyed Hiroshima.

The only reason he and his fellows survived was that, with the lack of any proper accommodation, Vonnegut and his fellows were given quarters in an disused abattoir: Schlachthof fünf.

Obviously telling such a story would be no easy task, so Vonnegut weaves the truth that he witnessed into a tale that can only be described as Science Fiction, but it is much more than that working in a number of different ways that as a piece of writing is quite extraordinary.

Ostensibly it is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young man who goes to war. Through a series of events, mostly unfortunate he finds himself as a prisoner, ending up in Dresden during the bombing, where we are informed by the author that he was there, a shadowy figure in the background. But it is more than that as Pilgrim is a man unstuck in time. According to him he was/will be abducted by aliens. Aliens who see time differently to our constricted linear perception, where it flows forward. To them time is open, a place where everything happens all at once, where death is just something that happens, but it is not all the end as your life is something that happens simultaneously. Someone might be dead, but you still see them... If that makes any sense at all - Vonnegut explains it so much better.

Through this method we are shown all of Pilgrim’s life, as he pulls us to different parts of his life, allowing us to see it all, in what might seem to us Earthlings a disjointed manner, but it complete by the time you finish the novel; with Dresden being the centre piece.

So we see his early years, his marriage and his career, his time at war, his success and failures, his time abducted by aliens and his death. So it goes.

There is more to it though. The first chapter is Vonnegut telling us what is to come. How fictitious this part of the book is, is open to question, but it concludes with the writer telling you how the book will begin and how it will end. Quite incredible.

The book is definitely a modern classic, well written but in a style that it can almost call it’s own. For myself, even never reading it many of the character names were familiar - Billy Pilgrim, Roland Weary and Kilgore Trout - a pulp science fiction author who appears in a number of Vonnegut’s novels.

For such a short read it is crammed full of material, without ever feeling crammed, something that perhaps shows a master at work, and something that many would be writers could learn from.

Also sitting on my too read pile I have David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, another book that plays fast and loose with chronological narrative, it will be interesting to see how the two of them compare.

But in this instance, the small scale story paints an evocative picture, and shows a moment of war history that is horrendous, conveying that horror without the need for graphic description, just how it was as a group of survivors crawled out of their bunker and saw just what modern warfare could do to the man made world around them. So it goes.
The thing that captured me right from the beginning was Vonnegut's strong humour and the dry sarcastic voice all the way. From the cover, blurb and other reviews of the book I was unprepared to find myself chuckling away at it as often as I was. Very few reviews ever mention that.
That's a good point Anya, and obviously I did not mention it in my review either, and I do not really know why. As I read it I chuckled, but come writing the review I could not think of a way of adding it.

It is funny in places, and also there is the sense of the absurd of well, something that is very prevalent in Joseph Heller's Catch 22 as well.

Maybe it's something that is needed in a good war book!
A great review, Perp, of a terrific book.

I agree that couching the horror of Dresden within the humour of the rest is a very effective way of getting the message across. The disjointed time allows Vonnegut to give a lot of information and a detailled picture of Dresden in small chunks, without it being too heavy and all at once.

And as you say, this was similar to the way Heller interspersed the ridiculousness of some of the military decisions with the more personal and humous elements in Catch 22.

There was also a film made of Slaughterhouse 5, which I thought captured the disjointed time element of the book rather well, as well as the desolation of Dresden.
Worth watching if they show it on TV, or you find it on tape or something. Not one to go to Leicester Square for. :)
But it was well done, given a very difficult book to adapt. (Catch 22 was better as a film for instance.)

Mind you, Vonnegut doesn't transfer to film well.
Did I once see a film of Cat's Cradle? Or did I dream that?
No film as yet of Cat's Cradle, but it has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio's production company
Did I once see a film of Cat's Cradle? Or did I dream that?

You may have seen a made-for-television film called Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), which cleverly adapted several stories and parts of novels into a single plotline. (The protagonist gets zapped into a space/time warp, so experiences all kinds of things.)

The story included elements from Cat's Cradle, such as the religion of Bokononism and the concept of Ice-9.

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