Friday, July 3, 2020

"Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut--Fiction Review

Today we’re going to talk about “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, the novel that made that man’s career. Sometimes, the hype is real, and while my personal favorite Vonnegut story is “Sirens of Titan,” I felt I should talk about the most well known Vonnegut story first. 

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is a hard story to classify because Vonnegut was one of those literary darlings who didn’t constrain himself to any one mere genre. But since I hate the dreaded catch-all “fiction,” classification let’s give it a shot—“Slaughterhouse-Five” certainly has its share of science fiction elements, with the time travel and whatnot. However, I’d probably have to peg it most accurately as a darkly humorous anti-war novel. 

Kurt Vonnegut

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

To steal a descriptor I find fitting that I had read about a character in a novel I’d read recently, Kurt Vonnegut was cheerfully disappointed in the entirety of the human experience. His writing captures that feeling at all times. While typically, I consider myself an optimist or would like to think I make an effort at being an optimist, and let’s face it I’m probably just a deluded pessimist. It’s sometimes fun to read someone’s work, which takes the diametrically opposite outlook on life. That’s why I love Kurt Vonnegut’s work, including this book, he reminds me that no one and nothing should take itself so seriously.

The time and place Vonnegut manages to conjure with his writing specifically when he’s talking about Dresden. He talks about his brief impressions of the city before the firebombing, immediately afterward, and years later. In the section immediately after the bombing, when the POWs are conscripted to sift through the ruins, I was especially disturbed by his description of the hunt for bodies as being the worst Easter Egg hunt ever. It’s that jarring contrast that makes Vonnegut’s writing powerful. 

What I don’t love about this book:

Kurt Vonnegut is often remembered or accused of being pretentious, and it’s a charge that even if you don’t agree with it, you can see the argument for, even in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” There are numerous times where Vonnegut delves into metaphysics in this novel that become eye-crossing tedious to follow. It’s especially likely to happen when he discusses his beloved aliens, the Tralfamadorians, which normally I’m thrilled by the inclusion of space aliens.   

Another thing I’m not a fan of is the numerous and varied characters don’t develop. They are precisely the same people when you meet them as when they leave the scene forever. Part of this, is there are a lot of them, when you have a large cast of named characters it’s hard to give them all the spotlight to grow and change—but nobody does. It makes sense why Billy doesn’t change throughout the book—he’s unstuck in time and experienced all the moments of his life and therefore has nothing to cause him to change or grow. The other characters orbiting Billy, make less sense, though. If I were to hazard a guess, the implicit messaging is all characters are like Billy, they just can’t perceive it as he can, and therefore no one is capable of change. I get it—it’s just not something that resonates with me.   

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Billy Pilgrim is a man unstuck in time and is fully aware of when he was assassinated. That sentence alone will give you a pretty good idea of what the rest of this novel is like.

Anyway, the novel begins with Kurt Vonnegut talking about his time in World War Two, specifically when he was a POW at Dresden, which was firebombed by the Allies, while he was there. He only survived because he was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse, hence the title of the book. This part isn’t fiction; he really was at Dresden and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.

When the narrative starts, we find out several things about Billy Pilgrim that might cause us to doubt him as being a reliable narrator. For one, his claims of being unstuck in time and having been abducted by aliens only start to come out after he survived a plane crash where he took a nasty head wound. He claims that his awareness of all this predates the plane crash, and since he’s the character our narrator is unquestioningly following around, we as the audience are kind of beholden to take his word on that. 

What follows is a truly schizophrenic series of stories about his life—a series I’m not even going to try to make an exhausting accounting of other than as a list. He talks about his time in the war, after the war, as an optometrist. Then there are the stranger bits, his time as an alien abductee—put in a zoo with a beautiful woman, and briefly as a public figure who gives a speech only to be assassinated via a laser rifle.

The novel, of course, doesn’t end at the assassination scene, for that would be way too plebeian for Vonnegut. The story ends during one of the moments in time back in Dresden after the firebombing destroyed the city and killed more people than both atomic bombs combined. The final message of the book is that everything that had happened was for no reason. Everything about “Slaughterhouse-Five” is to underscore the meaninglessness of war—if not the absurdities of life in general—there’s a fair argument for that too.        


For the entirety of this novel, we’re following Billy Pilgrim on his Dr. Manhattan–esque experience, minus the superpowers—my fellow Watchmen nerds will get that reference. In fact, Billy Pilgrim is almost certainly one of the inspirations for Alan Moore’s Dr. Manhattan.   

As such, nihilism is a significant component of Vonnegut’s writing, because a character who is aware of all moments of time in his life understandably has to be an odd duck. I find it unfortunate that every interpretation I’ve seen of a character similar to this is always translated as kind of an aloof, emotionless weirdo. Sure it’s an oddly abstract state of being to ponder, but can’t someone come up with a character who has experienced that and still come out as someone who might be fun to hang out with instead of constantly mildly infuriating?

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious irony here that Billy Pilgrim, and Kurt Vonnegut himself, only survived the firebombing of Dresden because they were imprisoned in a slaughterhouse. I don’t really have anything to say here other than—fuck if that happened to me, it’d be the only story I ever told. When else does life set you up that perfectly? 

Parting thoughts:

Sometimes, as I’m sure a lot of writers do at times, I feel a lot like the spiritual successor to Kurt Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout, which I’m pretty sure Vonnegut himself felt like at times during his career. Like Trout, for the most part, obscurity is my natural existence—hence the blog. But I also remind myself daily that this is what the writing process is to all writers. Or at least it is at some point in their career. To write, with the hope that someone someday will find your words meaningful, is a lonely task with no guarantees.

Even with all the fellowships, writing conventions, collaborations, societies, and what not—my advice to any prospective new writer is two things: first, read everything, read what you like, what you don’t like, what you understand, and especially what you don’t understand. Second, become comfortable with loneliness—at the risk of sounding hacky and nerdy—much like to be a ring bearer, to be a writer is to be alone. While actually writing—it’s crucial you understand that I’m just saying that the act of writing is lonely and not suggesting you become a loner. People are social animals, and we must never forget that. I’m under no circumstance advocating becoming a hermit and going off to build your own cabin by Walden Pond.    


  1. Love this book! I was recommended this after telling someone that Catch 22 was my favorite book of all time and SH5 did not disappoint. I’ll have to check out your favorite Vonnegut book seeing as I haven’t read that one yet. Great Review!

    1. Thank you, Paul! "Sirens of Titan" is certainly less profound than this book, but it's my favorite because it's the book that introduced me to Vonnegut, and I found it to be funnier. There is a whole bit of escaping Venus with a starship that is only good at landing, and I love the solution.