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.
Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "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."
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 a unique poignancy - and humor.
Why was it banned?
Slaughterhouse Five, since it was written, has always been subject to controversy and censorship due to its language, sexual and irreligious themes, use of outdated but nevertheless offensive terms, and for its portrayal of US soldiers in WWII. Over the years it has been a regular presence on the Banned Books list and will probably continue to be so.
Why did you choose it?
Haha. Ha. *shifty eyes*
Okay, so a couple of months ago I came across a pretty famous Dean/Castiel fanfiction. In it, Dean is a late night radio show presenter who talks about a variety of subjects, mostly music but sometimes books. And one of his favourite authors is Kurt Vonnegut. He talks about two of his books specifically – Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. The way the author of the fic wrote about these books really got me interested, even more so because Vonnegut’s been referenced on Supernatural a few times.
The moral of the story here is that I can basically find book recommendations just about anywhere.
I’ve never actually read anything quite like Slaughterhouse Five; it’s pretty much a unique book in as far as it’s written, I think. The novel gives you two points of view but only one narrator – our main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a fictional character who was a soldier in WWII and found himself captured as a POW by the Germans. As well as thousands of other POWs, Billy is taken to Dresden for the duration of his capture and is present during the Dresden air raids which decimated the city.
Dresden is remembered as one of the great controversies of WWII – like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, discussions have gone back and forth over the years on whether the actions of the Allied forces were justified. This is a big part of the novel, and the author comes back to it again and again, at one point poignantly pointing out that it took an atomic bomb to wipe out Hiroshima but only the most basic weaponry to decimate the city of Dresden.
The second point of view comes from the narrator, and this is what I found so interesting about the novel – the narrator is the author himself. Vonnegut opens Slaughterhouse Five with an introductory chapter in which he explains how for so long he wished to write a book about Dresden, and closes the novel with a final chapter from his own point of view. He exists as a character throughout the novel, but is only a periphery one – for instance, Vonnegut is also captured as a POW and taken to Dresden, but his presence there is only given a sentence’s notice. I just really loved that because it so brilliantly brings together fact and fiction while also giving precedence to the story and not the author.
Time travel is also a pretty important aspect of the novel, and although I’m not a very big fan of science fiction, I found myself really enjoying the weird fluidity the time travel gave the story. So Billy Pilgrim is a time-traveller, and moves between different parts of his life with ease – for example, he stands in a POW camp but closes his eyes and finds himself years in the future, as a rich man with a family. There are also aliens, known as Tralfamadorians. Pilgrim is taken by the aliens and for months is kept in a zoo on their home planet (just go with it). This sounds weird out of context but in the novel it works because the Tralfamadorians exist as species separate from humans and therefore have an entirely different understanding of how the world works. There is the argument of fate versus free will, presented through the aliens and humans. One of the controversies that this book continues to bring about is how Vonnegut seems to be on the side of the aliens, in the sense that he believes that will happen is unavoidable:
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
There is a very powerful anti-war sentiment in this novel and it’s clear from the alternate title that Vonnegut gives to the book in the introductory chapter – he names it ‘The Children’s Crusade’ as a poignant reminder that many of the soldiers who went to war and never came home were boys just out of school, inexperienced and naive. Billy Pilgrim reads like a character going through severe depression, and the description of the fire-bombing of Dresden is honestly horrific. What I find incredibly powerful about this novel though is how Vonnegut gives us such a human insight into the POW camps – it isn’t romanticised and there aren’t any dramatic attempts at escape. Instead we’re introduced to English soldiers who hoard food and behave like every day is a party, Russian soldiers who are starving to death and American soldiers who have a reputation among their German guards as being notoriously unable to follow rules or respect their own brothers.
I do think this book is exceptional and definitely think that everyone should read it.