Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

“So it goes”. Three unassuming words that Kurt Vonnegut uses frequently throughout his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse 5. His use of these words is frequent, but not clumsy, nor are they used inappropriately. These words are uttered by our narrator to signal somebody’s death.

Our narrator, it is assumed, is none other than Vonnegut himself and we’re immediately dragged to Dresden, Germany, the city in which the majority of the novel takes place and where Vonnegut was taken and held as an American prisoner of war in 1945. It is from the ground in what was then a largely un-bombed city, that Vonnegut witnessed the merciless fire-bombing of Dresden: a single night’s air-raid that killed 135,000 civilians, according to Vonnegut (although recent figures count the toll at somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000).

Rather than re-count his frightening experience in conventional, auto-biographical story-telling, Vonnegut introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, through whose extraordinary life we explore the harrowing experience of war. I say extraordinary because Billy is a time traveller. He does not travel in a De Lorean, with the help of plutonium and a flux-capacitor, nor does he mediate between time in any kind of device. “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next”. It is a sort of time travel of the mind, where Billy finds himself one moment in his optometry office as a forty-four year old in 1967 and the next moment packed into a box-car full of American prisoners of war in Germany, 1945.

But Billy is not bound to earthly locations on his travels; he also frequents an alien planet called ‘Tralfamadore’ where he claims to have been taken following abduction. There he is put in a zoo for the planet’s inhabitants to observe.

Time travel? Aliens? Human zoos? This is all sounding rather like science fiction when the novel is supposed to be making a universally understood statement about the futility of war. What about the fighting, the shooting, the bombing, the suffering, the death? It seems for Vonnegut, the key to understanding this futility is not through simple descriptions of what he has seen. He explains early on how he laboured over writing his ‘famous book about Dresden’ and that when he finally gets round to writing it, it is: ‘so short and jumbled and jangled (…) because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’.  Preluding the introduction to Billy Pilgrim no more than 20 pages in, Vonnegut’s final words on his ‘famous book’ on war are explicit on the kind of story he is about to tell:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

And he isn’t wrong. Slaughterhouse 5 is a compelling life-story of a lonely man who “is in a constant state of stage fright”. Billy doesn’t know where he is going to be whisked off to next, and neither do we. He doesn’t know which planet he’s going to find himself on, nor which woman he will be waking up with. He doesn’t know how old he will be or what he will be doing, be it prescribing corrective lenses to the residents of Ilium, New York or stealing the mixture of a supplement syrup for pregnant women in Dresden. The time travelling adventure is as much ours as it is Billy’s.

And so the elements of science-fiction help to emphasise rather than negate Vonnegut’s message, which is not so much a full-on anti-war slogan (which is implied rather than forced) but a reminder of its effects on those who experience pain, suffering and loss. In effect, it is a novel which challenges the reader to think about their own lives, to think about time, in a completely new way, as proposed by the Tralfamadorians when Billy asks the aliens why he has been chosen for abduction:

“Why ‘you’? Why ‘us’ for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply ‘is’. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?(…) Well here we are Mr Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no ‘why’?”

Vonnegut writes with a style that engages the reader on every page. Every jaunt in time is intriguing, the characters filling these spaces ranging from the abhorrent Roland Weary, a fellow soldier from 1949 who acts as bully; to the eccentric Kilgore Trout, author of several failed sci-fi novels and newspaper delivery “Don” to a group of uninterested kids; and the tragic bum who passes away in Dresden without as much as a whimper, insisting: “this aint so bad.”

But perhaps one of the most important characters, given only a handful of lines at the beginning but lines which seems to underline the books most important theme, is Mary O’Hare; the wife of the narrator’s war-time friend. He is initially met with hostility by Mary when he arrives at her home with his children who run off to play upstairs with those of the host. The tension is eventually broken when it is revealed her dislike is directed at the narrator’s assumed intention of glamourising war in his “famous book about Dresden”:

You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne…And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs

Here the novel’s strongest message is urged upon the reader in a mother’s desperate plea to a writer. It strikes early, and it strikes to the very core of the true essence of war and why it should be avoided. Perhaps more importantly, the message here is that literature and art should not be misleading in it’s depiction war so that it may never be repeated.

And Vonnegut achieves this feat in a way which is unique, funny and heart-breaking in equal amounts. The novel’s hero Billy Pilgrim does not seem to grasp just how serious and dangerous a situation he finds himself in Dresden. He travels from time to time, place to place without knowing where he’s going. The seriousness of his predicament in Dresden is felt by the reader but Billy is almost oblivious, and it is this childlike naivety despite his first-hand experience that juxtaposes and emphasises the obvious futility of war.

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