Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

SH5Ok, so big disclaimer here before I even start with this review. Something happened to me with this book that I really don’t think has happened to me before, and has drastically formed my opinion on it. I read this about 3 weeks ago (which really isn’t a very long time, considering some of the review I write are about a year after I complete them) and I sat down to look at which book to review next and I couldn’t remember that I had read it. I had to go onto my Kindle and see that I had actually in fact downloaded it, see that I had 100%’ed it to know that it really was this book that I had read. I didn’t remember anything. I couldn’t even remember what Slaughterhouse-Five was. I got it mixed up with Fahrenheit 451 (they are completely different books). I couldn’t tell you the main character. I genuinely had to go in and read a couple of pages to jog my memory. That, I would say, is probably the most damning assessment of a book. Sure, it’s not long, but it’s long enough to make some kind of impression! And, yes, it wasn’t always my most attentive reading and, yes, I found it quite boring but that was the case with Heart of Darkness and I didn’t forget that! So, I shall attempt to review this book, but I feel that having forgotten it completely in 3 weeks is the biggest point of the review to take away.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut and is the best known of his works. It’s an anti-war meets science fiction meets metafiction novel, and if you’re confused about what on earth type of book that results in then you wouldn’t be alone. It was published in 1969 and is considered to be partly autobiographical, namely the passages around the fire-bombing of Dresden during WW2 which was a major event in Vonnegut’s life.

Broadly, Slaughterhouse-Five covers the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, a fatalistic optometrist from his time in WW2 as a soldier and chaplain’s assistant through the post-war years, his abduction and captivity by aliens, eventual return to earth and finally death. Yeah. It’s kind of weird. However, I don’t remember hating it as I read it. Some parts, particularly those of the war, and of the abduction, were coherent and flowed well so they were enjoyable. There’s humour in them and irony and having this juxtaposed with awful sequences of destruction and darkness does create an interesting read. The British soldiers in the prison in Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five) are an amusing troop of individuals, and the Tralfamadorian zoo episodes are equally entertaining.

This novel is short with simple syntax and sentence structure and not particularly complex ideas at heart, but it is still fairly difficult to read. This is mostly down to the structure. It is made up of independent passages which cover events at one particular moment in time, and these jump around here and there between reality, imagination, past and present, and make things quite confusing. When you layer over the top some of the eccentricities of the subject matter or characters involved, it can be a bit difficult to really see all of the point that Vonnegut is trying to make in his writing, and follow the plot.

Part of this is possibly meant to convey the confused and damaged mental state of Billy Pilgrim after his experiences in the war. Many have interpreted the time-travelling episodes as being the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on from witnessing the bombing of Dresden. The fragmented nature and lack of chronology in the events narrated is a technique to further suggest this. As a reader, you are left feeling uncomfortable, quite confused and sympathetic towards Billy, despite not entirely understanding him. I think that is the point, but I could have just failed to see a lot of the meaning and symbolism in this book that others (particularly those who have experiences of being POWs or of PTSD can comment on far more effectively).

For others, the point of the time travelling and the skipping around in a timeline is the active portrayal of the Tralfamadorian concept of fatalism, that past, present and future are one, and that you can’t do anything about them so you just have to accept them as they are. Therefore, the future is not really the future because it’s already been decided and will happen as it happens so it doesn’t matter where it appears in the sequence of ‘time’. This, I think, is supposed to be underlined every time the line ‘so it goes’ is repeated (106 times) in the book. This drove a lot of other readers crazy but I was, surprisingly, not all that bothered by it.

Overall, I am prepared to admit that this book might be a bit too clever for me in what it’s trying to do. On the other hand, I can also say that I don’t really see all the hype surrounding it. It’s short and it’s not a hard read, but I didn’t finish it and feel like I learned a huge amount, or that my view of the world had dramatically shifted or even really been influenced much by reading it. So, it doesn’t fall into a category of books I want to read again.

I did mark it on a par with Fahrenheit 451 and put it in the ‘kind-of-enjoyed-it-but-quite-weird-and-a-bit-eccentric-for-me’ category.

But, then I forgot about it entirely in just 3 weeks. So I had to mark it down again. Sorry, Kurt.

 

Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥


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