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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

November 19, 2012

The new academic year is in full swing and so is the Imperial College Book Club. Kicking off the 2012/13 library is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.


Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut is a book about…ah, well, that’s a bit tricky. Things like plot are rather dependent on the third dimension. I’ll have a go. The book is about the bombing of Dresden by allied aircraft in 1943. It is also about Billy Pilgrim, an American POW who was there. Billy is a POW, an optometrist…and has come unstuck in time.

In most books, the narrative follows a mostly-linear plot that builds to the crescendo of a climax before coasting to a denouement. Because Billy is dragged around his own timeline (A bit like The Timetraveller’s Wife maybe? Not that I’ve read it), the plot doesn’t follow the nicely ordered path that we, as readers, would like it to follow.

There are narratives within the book. One stretch of time Billy experiences is the winter of 1942-43 as POW in Germany, culminating in the firestorm of Dresden. This is interrupted frequently by the time Billy spent in a zoo on the alien planet of Tralfamadore. Seeing time in the same way we see space, the Tralfamadorians explain many things about fate and free will to Billy. Things happen because they must happen, because they will happen and because they have always happened. This stretch of sci-fi time-space, and the war-time, are again punctuated by other times in Billy’s life, from childhood through to his death. Confused yet?

You probably shoudn’t be. It is not a confusing book, once you start thinking fourth-dimensionally, but it is puzzling. With other books, you wonder where the plot is going. With Slaughterhouse-Five, I was wondering where the plot was at all. An unconventional technique but it does keep the reader reading.

During his time on Tralfamadore, Billy asks for some Tralfamadorian books to read. The notion of a plot, a known past but an unknown future, is absurd to the Tralfamorians. Instead, their books are more like character studies: thousands of scenes arranged in such a way as to make a pleasing impression. As I read Slaughterhouse-Five, I wondered if perhaps Vonnegut was from Tralfamadore.

The book also has a laughable protagonist to go with its disjointed narrative. Billy is un-heroic and daft to the point of being comical. He exhibits a strong, near-superhuman passivity. But it is not necessary to the plot for him to do anything for things are constantly done to him. He shares with the Tralfamadorians a sense of fatalism that whatever happens was always going to happen, and cannot be changed.

All this philosophising is all well and good in theory but it is dragged back into focus, into practice, with Dresden, the obliteration of the city that is the culmination of the book. Is the book an apology for terrible things? Does it attempt to sweep them under the carpet? [Context: Though known today, the bombing of Dresden was not well-publicised to the allied people back home]. I do not think so. Bad things will continue to happen (though we may be able to change or avoid some of them) and that is, sadly, a fact of life.

When he learns that the Tralfamadorians have fought many wars, Billy asks how they can live with so many horrible moments. They reply that they focus on the good moments. There’s something in that.

This is the first Vonnegut book that I’ve read but I can confidently say that I devoured his writing. It is insatiably moreish and very-nearly-unputdownable. Evidenced clearly that he has made a page-turner of a plotless story of a scarecrow clown.

If you like war books, read this book. If you like sci-fi books, read this book. If you like books with a glaze of philosophy, read this book. If you…oh, whatever, read this book!

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