Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut

The firebombing of Dresden, nonlinear time-traveling, aliens who rewrite the New Testament, and dog torture.


Delacorte, 1969, 186 pages

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.

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 unique poignancy, and humor.

My favorite Kurt Vonnegut story is probably Harrison Bergeron, a satire much-beloved and misappropriated by conservatives in the same way that they love and misappropriate Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and ignore everything else MLK ever said. Kurt Vonnegut is hard to pin down politically, but he definitely hated war, authoritarianism, and chest-beating appeals to butchery. He personally witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, and Slaugherhouse-Five is clearly, among other things, his attempt to work through that experience, which must have still haunted him nearly twenty-five years later.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, an American infantry scout captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, hides with his fellow POWs and German captors in an abandoned slaughterhouse during the firebombing of Dresden. He sees a group of schoolgirls boiled to death in a water tower, and thousands of other civilians incinerated.

But Billy is "unstuck" in time, living all the moments of his life simultaneously. Even before he is captured, he knows that he will be a POW, and reading letters home to reassure family members that they are out of danger, that Dresden is an open city of no military value, he already knows that in a few days the city where he is being held is going to be in flames and most of the people around him will be dead, while he will survive.

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 are all bugs in amber.

Somewhere along the way he gets abducted by the alien Tralfamadorians and mated with a porn star in an alien zoo, while they explain to him their philosophy of time, that everything has already happened and will happen and cannot be changed, and that you can only choose which moments to focus on.

Vonnegut was blisteringly satirical at times, though his agenda was not anti-religion or anti-patriotism but anti-authoritarianism, anti-cruelty, anti-killing-people-because-someone-else-tells-you-to. He sorrows over the deaths of those schoolgirls. He also observes that those schoolgirls had fathers and uncles and brothers some of whom were probably just days ago making lampshades out of human skin. Vonnegut doesn't allow that one tragedy negates the other, but he does give voice to characters who insist that by some moral calculus there are good slaughters and bad slaughters. There is a veteran who is outraged by the hand-wringing over the firebombing of Dresden while pointing out all the horrible things the Germans did. How many people don't feel similarly? Vonnegut was a humanist, but his message is more complicated than "War is bad," and I never thought he was advocating pacifism. Slaughterhouse-Five a weird and complicated enough book that you can probably take whatever message you want from it, though some are hard to miss.

He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful even to the lowest of the low. But the Gospels actually taught this: before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the son of the most powerful being in the universe. Readers understood that, so when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again: "Oh boy, they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!"

And that thought had a brother: There are right people to lynch. Who? People not well-connected. So it goes.

There are many interesting, funny, and horrible little snippets dropped in this book, like the steak the vengeful, sociopathic Lazarro feeds to a dog, filled with tiny jagged bits of clock spring.

That said, Vonnegut's writing frankly just doesn't appeal to me that much. A lot of people love Slaughterhouse-Five, but it just didn't click with me. Few writers could put together such a nonlinear, absurdist narrative blending the humorous with the horrific in such a skilled manner, but I found the story weird and just couldn't connect with Billy Pilgrim, for which I feel bad because Billy Pilgrim is obviously a semi-autobiographical stand-in for the author. Undoubtedly I am some kind of literary heathen for this, consigned to the same hellfires where burn people who don't like Lord of the Rings or Stranger in a Strange Land or (pick your trippy classic), but I could only enjoy it in a detached way as a piece of art whose craftsmanship I could appreciate but which did not speak to me.

The movie isn't better, but it is more entertaining

I had never seen the 1972 movie before, so I Netflixed it after reading the book.

The film won a Prix du Jury at the Cannes and a Hugo Award (the novel was a Hugo nominee), but was something of a flop at the box office. Unsurprising for an adaptation of a trippy nonlinear anti-war sci-fi novel about a time traveler told via random flashbacks and flashforwards. Plus nudity. It is quite a good movie, if no easier to follow than the book.

Watching the movie did clarify for me one of the reasons why I didn't really enjoy the book: Billy Pilgrim's passive, milquetoast nature is portrayed with painful earnestness by Michael Sacks (whose Wikipedia entry I found fascinating: he quit acting, earned a M.S. in Computer Science from Columbia University, and became a Wall Street IT executive. You have to wonder if he ever sits up there in his Wall Street office and Netflixes movies he starred in 40 years ago... Or maybe that's just me.) Anyway, back to milquetoast Billy. I just don't like weak protagonists who bumble through life leading with their chin. Vonnegut knew what he was doing and Billy Pilgrim is the perfect character for the story he was trying to tell, a subversion of and a wish for the meek inheriting the Earth. But Pilgrim just... annoyed me.

Nonetheless, see the movie if you don't want to read the book. Or read the book and see the movie. They're both thoughtful enough to be worth the experience.

Verdict: This is a great novel that deserves to be read. Some people will love it. I did not so much. It's only nominally science fiction, and more of a satirical condemnation of war in the same vein as Catch-22, with doses of time travel and aliens. Nonlinear, thought-provoking, very strange, I don't think anyone can tell you if you're going to like it before you read it yourself.

Slaughterhouse-Five is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, though I did not read it for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, kurt vonnegut, movies, netflix, reviews

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