Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Vonnegut is yet another author whom I haven’t read until this summer. He’s a name that gets so much praise from many readers/writers I trust, a name that Bulgarians I’ve met this summer know as a classic American author. Vonnegut’s personal writing library is huge- there seems to be so many novels to choose from. Not knowing where else to start, I began with Vonnegut’s (arguably) most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it shocked me. I was only slightly aware that this was a book about war, but it is so different from the other books I’ve read that focus on war (Tim O’Brien’s works, A Farewell to Arms, etc.). Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American army veteran who served in World War II. Pilgrim spent most of his time in WWII as a Prisoner of War, and was present during the bombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945. While Pilgrim exists as the protagonist of the novel, he does not narrate the story. On the first page of the novel there is an ‘I,’ one who attempts to convince the reader that the story about to be told really did happen: ‘All this happened, more or less.’ The narration of Slaughterhouse Five makes for an interesting read, especially because Pilgrim’s plot line does seem to be the major thread of narrative throughout. The identity of the narrator is interesting to the story as well; while there is an ever present I, and while Vonnegut drops hints throughout the story, Vonnegut never comes out and says ‘this is the narrator.’ While I was reading, I found myself attempting to connect the dots to place the narrator into a familiar identity that was already established in the narrative. This was difficult to do- at one point in the story when Billy finds the sign over the latrine, the narrator writes: ‘An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant this brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.’ Here, Vonnegut directly implies that another P.O.W with Billy Pilgrim narrates the novel; however, he still remains unnamed, still remains a bit of a mystery. And then again Vonnegut teases us with the identity a bit later: ‘Somebody behind him the boxcar said, ‘Oz.’ That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.’ The same sentence structure is used in this section as the previous, connecting the hints together.

‘That was I. That was me.’ Short sentences, sentences that give no doubt about their contents. Compared to the majority of the other sentences in Slaughterhouse Five, compared to the highly imaginative and non-linear sections of the novel, these sentences seem powerful in their truth. The repetition too makes me believe that the narrator is speaking out strongly, telling the reader the most obvious truth: Vonnegut has put himself in the story as the narrator, as a minor character who is inconsequential to Billy Pilgrim’s storyline but who provides a bit of truth throughout the difficult storyline. ‘That was the author of this book.’ Another convincing element of this is that Vonnegut too was born in Indianapolis, Indiana where he grew up and lived for most of his young adult life. Vonnegut too fought in WWII, was a P.O.W in Dresden, and was saved from the bombing of Dresden only because of his P.O.W work in an underground meat locker. So, if Vonnegut is indeed the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five, what’s the point? Why would he insert himself in a small role? Perhaps Vonnegut’s narration, a story coming from his own experiences, grounds the narrative in a way that Billy Pilgrim’s story does not. Perhaps Vonnegut needed to write about the war but needed to be far enough away from it to do so. A small role that delivers small, poignant truths about warfare gives Vonnegut exactly that. Mixing his narration with Billy Pilgrim’s sporadic and inventive storyline allows for Vonnegut to uncover and deliver some important truths while also keeping him far enough away to do so.

Billy Pilgrim believes himself to have become ‘unstuck in time,’ meaning that he has freed himself from the confining limitations of linear time as human beings know it. He experiences time travel and alien abductions from a race called Tralfamadorians amongst his experiences as a P.O.W. Thus, Slaughterhouse Five is not told chronologically; or, rather, it attempts to be told chronologically but falters when Billy experiences time travel. Throughout the novel the reader is transported with Billy from the underground meat locker in Dresden to his home with his wife Valencia and his two children- from the bombed ground of the city to life with the Tralfamadorians. When an especially traumatic episode happens or is about to happen in the WWII storyline, Billy vanishes, reappearing again years later or in another galaxy. But just the same, when Billy feels comfortable working as an optometrist years after the war, he flies back to kneeling before a German firing squad somewhere outside of Dresden. Billy’s time travel, hallucinatory or real, allows him to release himself from the harsh confines of war, to break himself from the realities that are so tragic and disgusting that they seem imaginary. What is so impressive about this novel is the way that life with the Tralfamadorians is more believable and sane than life during WWII. It’s an excellent novelistic construct and theme; what, after all, do we consider sanity? Is a man insane because he hallucinates in order to remain humane, in order to live after he’s released? How is that more insane than sending 18 year old men to a place where fire literally rains from the sky? As readers we feel relieved to leave the underground meat locker, feel glad to forget about the deaths of Roland Weary and others; we appreciate fleeing to Tralfamador or to Billy’s lackluster but calm future with his wife and children. We feel scared to be in that real storyline in Dresden, so who are we, Vonnegut asks, to label Billy Pilgrim’s coping mechanisms as insane?

‘All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’ Billy’s experiences with the Tralfamadorians begin to shape his thoughts on time. This quotation especially makes sense for Billy- he has lived so many moments more than once. And perhaps all veterans of war or civilians of war or anyone involved in war live in such a way, revisiting moments in a haunting clarity. And why do certain memories stick more? Why does Billy Pilgrim keep returning to the same few moments of his life? This is something he asks the Tralfamadorians to which they reply: ‘Here we are. Trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.’ Billy eventually comes to his own conclusion with the bugs in amber metaphor: ‘All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we all are bugs in amber.’ So, although Billy experiences time travel and flings himself across the dimension of time, he knows that certain moments cause one to stick, to trip, to always return. And war is definitely one of those moments.

What I keep coming back to about Slaughterhouse Five is the idea of coping, of transforming your personal philosophy so that you are able to keep on living as much as possible after the horrendous things you’ve witnessed. Billy Pilgrim does this. He begins to adopt the same attitude as the narrator (Vonnegut), the philosophy that says: ‘So it goes’ and ‘Whatever he saw he had no choice but to say: that’s life.’ Billy travels through time and dimensions and begins to adopt a philosophy that tells him death is not definite. He can return, after all, to a moment in time when that person was not dead. And therefore, Billy comes to accept (in a way) the destruction that has taken over his life so completely in WWII. He tells himself: ‘it was all right, somehow, his being dead. So it goes.’ He creates the illusion that he believes, ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.’ I love that Vonnegut put this iconic line on a gravestone, drew it in connection to the burial of Edgar Derby. Valencia, Billy’s wife after his time in the war, talks to him regarding some of his war experiences and attempts to understand what happened to Edgar Derby. She understands that he died in front of a German firing squad, that Billy witnessed it, that Billy buried his body. She asks: ‘And they pinned a target to him?’ ‘A piece of paper, said Billy. He got out of bed, said Excuse Me, went into the darkness of the bathroom to take a leak. He groped for the light, realized as he felt the rough walls that he had traveled back to 1944, to the prison hospital again.’ Here we see Billy time traveling (or hallucinating if you want to call it that) as soon as he remembers a terribly inhumane war experience. He copes by leaving, by creating beautiful illusions, such as the words on Derby’s tombstone: ‘everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.’

There is no real conclusion to Slaughterhouse Five for me. I know that Billy Pilgrim will spend his eternity traveling back and forward through time, visiting the Tralfamadorians now and again. He’ll return to the underground meat locker, to the destroyed city of Dresden, all ash, to the forest in the woods when he got captured. He’ll keep returning, endlessly. But he’ll go elsewhere, too, back or forward or sideways to happier moments, moments that allow him to truly believe that everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. The blessing of Billy’s coping mechanism is that he gets his humanity back after witnessing utter horror. Billy reflects: ‘If I’m going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.’ The last two pages of the novel include some of the saddest material: information about the corpse mine in Dresden, the smell of bodies rotting throughout the city, a fellow P.O.W dying because of throwing up so much due to the smell, soldiers cremating dead bodies… Horrific details that Billy glazed over in other parts of the novel. But the ending of the novel rebounds: ‘And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.’ Springtime. Hope. An illusion, perhaps. But ‘so it goes.’


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