Monday, October 4, 2010


One of the first books I read that had a major impact on me, and introduced me to the power of literature was Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE. I read it for the first time as a teenager a few years after it was published in 1969.

SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death combines elements of autobiography and science fiction and makes an anti-war statement while being both funny and tragic. 

Vonnegut was a soldier and prisoner of war during WWII. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1942. He was sent to Dresden, and  experienced and survived the fire bombing of the city in February, 1945. Slaughterhouse-Five was the name the Allied POWs adopted for the name of their prison. Vonnegut recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon and the surviving POWs were put to work gathering the bodies of the dead civilians. Their remains were incinerated into ashes by German troops using flamethrowers. 

The book explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. The central character, Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life. This allows Vonnegut to create a non-linear narrative where Billy travels both forward and backwards in time, where he experiences past and future events out of sequence. These events include his war experiences, his mundane life after the war as an optometrist in Ilium, New York, his survival of an airplane crash, and his life on Tralfamadore a planet where he has been taken by extraterrestial aliens. He also knows how and when he will die, because he has already experienced it in his time travels.

There are many memorable characters including Paul Lazzaro, a slimy car thief from Cicero, Illinois who vows to kill Billy someday, because he feels Billy is responsible for another soldier's death. There is also Edgar Derby who befriends Billy, but experiences an ironic death after the massacre in Dresden. Montana Wildhack is a film actress that is also abducted by the Tralfamadorians and put with Billy on the planet where they have sex and produce a child. Characters from other Vonnegut books also make appearances, including Howard Campbell who was the main character in Mother Night. Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, who will be the main character in Breakfast of Champions, and Eliot Rosewater from the book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

While on Tralfamadore, Billy is exposed to their ideas about time and existence. They don't believe in time as we know it. They believe everything exists simultaneoulsy. It is, it always has been, and it always will be. While war is a product of human senselessness, it is also inevitable. You can't explain the unexplainable. So it goes.

SLAUTERHOUSE-FIVE is an early example of a postmodern or metafictional novel. It combines autobiographical elements from Vonnegut's life with science fiction ideas. While it is clearly written, it is disjointed and discontinuous, giving it an overall structure of disorder. It is a beautiful book that makes a strong statement about the absurdity of existence.

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