Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

slaughterhouseThis novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. tells the story of a man named Billy Pilgrim who time-travels frequently. During the Second World War he was captured and sent to Dresden to work in a malt syrup factory before the city was bombed.

 

“There was a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city. There address was this: “Schlachthof-fünf.” Schlachtof meant slaughterhouse. Fünf was good old five.” (pg 194-195)

After the war, he studied optometry, married the daughter of a rich optometrist, whom with he had a daughter, Barbara, and a son, Robert, with, became rich himself, and, later, has a nervous breakdown. A plane crash that kills everyone except him and the co-pilot. Rushing to the hospital in frantic worry, his wife, Valencia, dies in a car accident. Some where along the way, he gets to meet his favorite author, an unsuccessful sci-fi writer named Kilgore Trout. He is abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who put him in a zoo on their home planet, Tralfamadore, with a young porn actress, Montana Wildhack, whom they also abducted. The summary alone brings on a sense of randomness and the novel never loses this overall frustration.

The narration jumps around as frequently as Billy does and I found myself learning everything I needed to know early on and then simply revisiting it all as the book came to a close. Worse than watching television during commercial break, especially the Head On commercial , the fractured narrative gives you a headache. It’s extremely boring, hollow, and unsatisfying.

The broken structure and time traveling element must have been quite original back in 1969, when Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, but after reading another book about time travel , I can’t help but think that Slaughterhouse-Five left nothing to be desired or excited about. I’m not a huge science-fiction fan but I enjoyed Niffenegger’s portryal of time traveling more than that of Vonnegut. The novel is less about time travel than it really is about reliving the past, present and future of your life, all at once, because it’s Billy’s consciousness that does the traveling. What isn’t clear, at all, is which is the real Billy? Is the real Billy the one in the zoo on Tralfamadore? Or did Billy really die at Dresden? Or did Billy die as he said he “will die, have died, and always will die on February thirteenth, 1967”? (pg. 180)
The time traveling aspect predates the abduction by the Tralfamadorians but the aliens see into the past, present and future simultaneously, and teach Billy to“simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”

According to Wikipedia, Vonnegut’s seemingly endless repetition of the phrase ‘so it goes.’ stands at a staggering 106 times. It felt more like it numbered in the thousands to me. About twenty pages into the book, I was so fed up with the words ‘so it goes’ and the dismissal of important facts with this phrase, I felt like the only rightful place for this book was the fireplace.By the way, I can’t help but wonder why Vonnegut’s editor didn’t do something about the monotonous quality of Vonnegut’s prose. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all authors should cram as many words into a sentence as possible. Yet, Vonnegut’s prose is sparse and simplistic making it tedious and droning, to the point where frequently I wished for a few longer sentences here and there, or for an actual in-depth description of something that was happening. Anything at all would have been fine by me.I hardly ever got one.

The only part I truly enjoyed was the part about Billy’s time in the zoo on Tralfamadore. And if you ask me, Vonnegut’s novel would have been a lot better if he had focused on that part of Billy’s life or even the one hundred American prisoners of war being welcomed by the British POWs in the German prison camp . I did, in fact, love the excerpts from the work on American soldiers and prisoners-of-war by the American-turned-Nazi, Howard W. Campbell Jr.

All in all, parts of the small, short book could easily have been skipped and you never would have known the difference. In short, Slaughterhouse-Five is impractical, incoherent, tries too hard, and, at the end of the day, utterly useless to my generation. Vonnegut bangs you on the head with his message. The experience did not inspire me to read more of Vonnegut’s work. I guess he’s a love or hate kind of story-teller

Book Mentioned:

  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dial Press, 1999. Originally published 1969. Print. 288 pgs. ISBN: 0385333846. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Dail Press. Retrieved: April 14, 2008.
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