Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 is seen as his best work and a modern classic although, having completed it, I’m left wondering why. Blending science fiction with his memoirs Vonnegut has created a meta-fictional novel where time travel is a primary plot device; one that allows him the freedom to dismiss chronology in the telling of his tale.
Billy Pilgrim is a war veteran, having been a prisoner of war in a converted abattoir in Dresden. Years after the war he is involved in a plane crash which causes him to become “unstuck in time”; a strange condition that allows him to travel to any point in his life, or even to the planet Tralfamadore where the aliens that live there view life as a single representation of every moment. Through his frequent travels in time, Billy Pilgrim gets to relive many points of his life such as Dresden, his marriage, and even his death; all of these combine to show Billy’s attempt at making sense of the world, his fatalist conclusions permeating the novel.
The story of Billy Pilgrim doesn’t start until the second chapter, the first, instead, being the author’s apology for the novel’s mess (although he states you can’t make sense of a massacre) and how, in his mind, the book came to be. The prose is minimalist and repetitive. Phrases appear regularly or statements reappear reworded. The use of “so it goes” whenever something dies, be it a person or bubbles in champagne, is understandable, however, in its need to demonstrate death as something routine and cheap, it does become grating.
There are many characters in Slaughterhouse 5 although I don’t feel that any of them were given much depth. People appear for a paragraph and then Billy Pilgrim is off on his travels before you have a chance to get to know them. Even Billy failed to hold my attention, possibly because we fail to really get to know him. The author spends time telling us about him rather than showing him doing anything which, I feel, cheapens the experience. His condition, that of being “unstuck in time”, leaves a nice ambiguity about the novel although it’s highly probable that his travelling is a delusional passage between memories brought on by the trauma of witnessing the bombing of Dresden.
Maybe the book is a product of its time or maybe there’s something I’m missing but Slaughterhouse 5 is not a novel I’d recommend. Having no experience of Vonnegut’s other work I can’t say whether this book, being part memoir, is a typical example of his canon. While the novel is understandably a mess, I can’t help but feel that the prose and characterisation are lacking and what, on paper, sounds like a great idea has been put through a literary slaughterhouse. So it goes.
May 31, 2007