Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
—Slaughterhouse Five, Chapter Two.
Praised, reviled, declared a classic, and banned by some school boards, Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut’s entertaining attack on human stupidity and the absurdity of war—even a war with aims he supports—remains a must-read. It is the second in my ongoing reviews of Vonnegut’s best novels. The review of Sirens of Titans appears here.
Title: Slaughterhouse Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Original Publication Date: 1969
(In England, 0099800209).
Vonnegut’s recollections of his experiences as a prisoner of war and of the bombing of Dresden turn into an account a fictional soldier, Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time.” Not only does Billy’s life fall out of chronological order, he has real or imaginary encounters with aliens from Tralfamadore, who do not perceive time in a linear fashion, and do not believe that free will can exist.
I provide the following excerpt from the novel as my High Point:
He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter plans flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.
I understand that the repetition of a refrain in different contexts can be quite effective, and Slaughterhouse’s “So it goes,” can be devastating and funny. Just as often, I found it unnecessary; the point had been made without it. Still, it has become inseparable from this novel, and this novel is probably Vonnegut’s best. So it goes.
Originality: 6/6 Many former soldiers have written about their experiences; few have done so from the perspective of science-fiction. Vonnegut does this, and more, and makes it work. I’ve read this novel at different times in my life, and it managed to be powerful each time.
Characterization: 4/6. Vonnegut acknowledges the lack of detailed characterization in the novel, explaining that war discourages people from becoming characters. Of course, Vonnegut the narrator becomes a realized character over the course of the novel. For that matter, many of the minor characters, while not fully developed, are memorable.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6. The book is deceptively easy to read.
Overall Score: 6/6. Read this book.
In total, Slaughterhouse Five receives 37/42