Review: “Slaughterhouse Five, or, The Children’s Crusade” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

So it goes.

Long regarded as one of America’s great works, Slaughterhouse Five is a unique and provocative novel. The story begins with a narrator who shares common facts of Vonnegut so readers are to think that this book will be an account of Vonnegut’s life. The narrator tells us that he is in the process of writing a book about his experience of the infamous Dresden firebombing near the end of World War II. By the end of the first chapter, the narrator switches over and we are now reading about a man called Billy Pilgrim instead, who was also in the war and survived the Dresden bombing.

The story has one of the most amazing timelines I’ve ever read, and it is credit to Vonnegut that I was not lost once. The main story of Slaughterhouse Five is Billy Pilgrim’s ability to time travel. At moments of stress, Billy’s mind travels back and forth in time with no warning. He is also later kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and made to live in a zoo. The Tralfamodorians have a unique philosophy for their outlook life – everything happens because they simply happen. There is no reason. Vonnegut coins his famous saying, “so it goes”, which comes from the aliens in the text. They believe in eternity and pity humans who cry at death. Death does not exist to the aliens because it does not signify that somebody is gone forever. Rather, that person is only dead at that certain stage, that certain moment, that certain scene, and that they remain alive forever in other scenes. People can never die.

I have been reluctant to pick up this book because I’m not all interested in books about the war. I know I’m missing a whole genre and significant section in literature, where there are huge amounts of books that were published during the Cold War who criticize the recent WWII, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. What surprised me about Slaughterhouse Five is not its pretext about war but rather its underlying philosophy. Nobody can ever really explain the atrocities of war, what the human race went through, the indescribable acts they committed, and why some survived and others didn’t. I suspect the reason behind Billy’s time travel is due to his post-traumatic stress. To escape the atrocities during the war, he shifts his mind, and to which he simply never recovered from.

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5 comments

  1. I read this earlier this year and I absolutely loved it. I, frankly, had absolutely no idea what it was about – though, that’s mainly because I had no interest whatsoever in knowing. It wasn’t until I read an essay by George Saunders that I thought ‘aliens, time-travel, and war? I had no idea!’ It’s a really odd book, but that’s part of what makes the war parts so bearable, I think. I think you’re probably right about about the traumatic stress, although I always like to think that all of that really happens to Billy.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this for several years now, but I have to admit the alien thing turns me off at bit. It always sounded like it jumped around in bizarre ways. It is interesting that you said you didn’t get lost in it. I’m going to have to commit to this book this coming year. Thanks for the review!

  3. Jennifer – yes, it does sound weird doesn’t it? Aliens blended with WWII and its aftermath. It’s a great read though.

    J.S. – I had no idea what it was about too. I consistently came across his quote “so it goes” and that piqued my interest.

    Laza – don’t let the alien thing turn you off! It’s incredibly well written. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan and it worked wonderfully for me. It sounds complicated but Vonnegut really handles it well.

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