Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t even know where to begin with this book.  There is that much within it to discuss that I feel like I’d be starting in the middle and leaving all of you who haven’t read it without a single clue as to what in God’s name I’m talking about.  I certainly enjoyed it, and will most likely return to it in the future.  There’s just so much to look at…and such little blog space.

Let me do my best to summarize: Slaughterhouse-Five follows the life of a man named Billy Pilgrim, mostly dwelling on his experience in the city of Dresden as a POW in WWII.  It should be noted that Billy has the ability to time-travel, so Vonnegut uses this ability to sort of tell the story out of order (though, for some reason, it makes plenty of sense).  There’s also aliens at some point who have see in four dimensions (as opposed to the usual three; the fourth dimension is time).  All of this also somehow makes the book anti-war, which is evident only when you read it.

That being said, go and read this book.

One of the themes that I found most interesting was Vonnegut’s take on death.  The aliens who perceive four dimensions, called the Tralfamadorians, say something very interesting whenever someone dies: “So it goes.” Vonnegut interjects this sentence every time the death of a living being is mentioned, human or animal.  The reason the aliens say this is because, to them, people go on living even though they die at some point.  This is because of their perception of time.  To us, as human beings, time is linear.  We can look back at the line which we’ve walked, which is full of events that happened only once and will not happen again, and we cannot look forward except in speculation.  When you perceive in the fourth dimension, time is an object which one looks at, where all events happen at one time.  The Tralfamadorians view time as a mosquito trapped in a piece of polished amber, forever happening at one time. Therefore, even after you die, you go on living, because the events that occurred when you were alive are still occurring, and will always occur.

Vonnegut actually remarks that, if such is the case, he’s not overjoyed.  However, what the Tralfamadorians would advise is that we focus on the good times and ignore the bad ones.  It’s a bit too escapist for me to think in such a way, but I do not see in four dimensions.  Perhaps, if I did, I would take this philosophy more to heart, so as to not dwell on bad times, but my perception of time encourages me to move forward, looking for better memories.

I also loved Billy’s time-traveling, how he’d effectively segway from his wedding night to the POW camp to his office quite seamlessly. Very few authors can write in this manner and do so well.  The only other good example I’ve seen would have been Alan Moore when writing for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, and after reading Slaughterhouse-Five, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some amount of inspiration there.  Though it wasn’t chronological, the sequence still made sense, almost like someone just sitting and reflecting on different memories (though it also seemed a bit like PTSD).

As for being anti-war, one of my favorite sections of the book is where Billy watches a war movie in reverse.  The bombs return to the plane, the plane returns to base, the soldiers return home, and age in reverse, returning to when they were just babies, back to the time of innocence.  I’m no longer one for war, as I may have been when I was a teenager, and the idea of a return to our innocence creates a feeling of longing in me, to where holidays like Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day and many others have no meaning other than to mark what once was.  My friend Mike used to have the following quite in his AIM Profile

“I dream of a child who will ask, “Mother, what was war?”

Eve Merriam

I dream of this myself.  Call me naive or foolishly optimistic, but I believe it possible. One day, war will be a thing of the past.  One day, we will beat our swords into ploughshares, and we will not learn war anymore.  One day.

Anyway, get this book and read it!  It’s great, and will cook your brain in the best way!  I’m off to the dentist, then I’m going to find another book!  Yay!

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6 thoughts on “Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Wondering how it can be escapist if that segment of time (and all present therein) are not alive, but living – living up until that moment when they are not such that they participate in these eternal segments. Of course this brings up the manner by which we experience time – how can it possibly be moving if it is infinite and how can one enter or leave it…but I’m not understanding where the escapism is.

      • Would n’t it be escapist to yearn for that which is outside the realm of possibility – even outside of time-space? Some Christian utterances are escapist in that they neglect an understanding of being embodied in time – in this locus. That we believe life extends further is not escapist if it does not deny that which is presented to us now. Similarly, it seems that these four-dimensionals speak of the eternal Zeitpunkt, not a transcendent which allows us to ignore the present one. Rather, each point within that which might be described as time is equal. It’s the future- or past-obsessed who would be escapist; those who grab for the time they cannot have.

      • Perhaps escapist is the wrong word. Suppressive, I guess? To ignore the “bad” parts as if they didn’t happen is just as destructive as wishing for things outside reality.

    • I’d agree that suppressive seems to fit a little better.

      It seems that you don’t jive 100% with the Tralfamadorians’ philosophy, and a lot of people have accused Vonnegut of being too Nihilistic with them. Fun thought: you can make a really solid case that the aliens don’t actually exist and were created as a coping mechanism by Billy Pilgrim.

      (Also, I’d love to have a long, drawn out discussion about that book with you sometime. As I mentioned, it’s one of my absolute favorites.)

      • I actually didn’t think it was overly nihilistic, but only because I feel like I’ve read worse. The Tralfamadorians were actually quite happy with their existence (so they’re far more existential than nihilistic) but having them function as a coping mechanism makes sense too.

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