All my life I’ve heard about how great Kurt Vonnegut is. How Slaughterhouse Five changed peoples lives. How his writing was so absolutely fantastic.
And all I am left with thinking is, “I guess”.
I don’t know. It’s good. It was tragic and funny – sad and delightful (just like the back of my edition boasts), but the best antiwar novel? Hmmm. I’m not so sure. I’d rather promote Catch 22 or even Johnny Got His Gun as the two most influential antiwar novels. Or even The Painted Bird which deals not with the soldier side of war, but civilian’s experiences with war.
I guess, for those who haven’t read it, a description of the plot, and maybe a little background information, would be beneficial (maybe).
The novel is based on Vonnegut’s experience in World War II. He was a Prisoner of War when the firebombing of Dresden took place. The novel begins with his explanation of his experiences in the war. Vonnegut says that some of the things that happen in the book really did happen to him (and as you read, Vonnegut puts himself there in Dresden in a few occasions, just as a background character, nothing huge, almost just to make the story seem more real and less like a story).
The real story is about Billy Pilgrim. Billy joins the war effort and is almost immediately captured as a prisoner of war by the German troops. He is transported in an extremely crowded train to a POW camp. Billy suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized. Soon he and the other American POWs are sent to Dresden. They are set up inside a former slaughterhouse (i.e. Slaughterhouse Five). One night, while locked in their airtight meat locker, allied troops bomb the city and kill nearly 130,000 people. They surface from their camp to find a moonscape of devastation. They are forced to exhume corpses from the debris and wreckage. Billy returns to Ilium, NY after the Russians capture the city. He becomes engaged. He has a breakdown. He gets electro-therapy. He gets married. He has children. On the night of his daughters wedding he is abducted by a race of aliens called the Tralfamadorians. They make him live in a zoo and mate with an adult film star/actress from earth. They teach him their thoughts on the universe.
All of this is much better when you read the novel – believe me. Just reading over what I wrote would NOT make me want to read this book.
Anyway, all of this is told in a nonlinear fashion. Billy Pilgrim goes back and forth between past, present and future throughout the novel.
In the end, I don’t think I could ever figure out if Billy Pilgrim was crazy or not. Did he really get abducted? Or was this all just because of what he experienced in the war… it could be, due to the breakdowns he suffers at different times throughout the novel.
I see how it is antiwar to an extent. I mean, Billy Pilgrim DOES go through some pretty horrific things. He sees death and destruction. But, it’s also about a guy who gets abducted by aliens. I get it. It’s like black humor. It’s taking a super serious topic, like war, and mixing it with bad science fiction. Does Catch 22 do it better? Yeah, I think so.
Anyway, it’s not the last Vonnegut novel I will read. That’s for sure. I like his style.
And, all I know is that I want the last words for my eulogy to be “So it goes”.
On to reading!