Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in 1969. Considered an American classic and among the world’s great antiwar novels, the story is centered around the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II. It follows Billy Pilgrim, a U.S. Army private, who embarks upon a strange odyssey while struggling to survive as a prisoner of war. Billy’s consciousness becomes unstuck in time, sending him to various points in his own past and future, including his married life after the war, waning years after surviving a serious accident, and the period of time he spent as an exhibit in an alien zoo. Through it all, he always returns to his horrific experiences during the war.
Once I started this book, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was reading literature. Sometimes that can make for a dull reading experience, but I found myself sucked into this story pretty much immediately. It offered a stark look at humanity, framed around a devastating historical event, that was also profoundly strange in a captivating and sobering way. Its sense of humour resonated a lot with me too, so dry and matter-of-fact that it made both the mundane and the dark somehow comical. Presented in such a straightforward manner, the darker content was definitely more impactful too, yet could also become absurd. This was enhanced by the repetition of certain phrases, especially that of “so it goes” after the mention of death or mortality, becoming a sort of inside joke between the text and the reader.
As an antiwar novel, I felt it did a good job of being more subdued, though the first chapter told from the author’s perspective certainly doesn’t shy away from his feelings. Much of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences you take as they are, however, with nothing romanticized or revered, nor much stern, philosophical condemnation. The conditions Billy and his fellow POWs suffer are awful, plain and simple, and speak for themselves. Rays of hope come from mundane places, and the experience of war has clear, lasting consequences on the survivors. Their enemies are decently humanized too, just civilians or other young men like them thrust into a conflict with little say in the matter. Their position over Billy and his fellow prisoners is sometimes flaunted, but they never felt entirely vilified.
Most striking was the emphasis on the age of most soldiers, Billy included, who are all barely adults, yet they’re meant to endure the machinations of those in command who order or subjugate them, depending on whether it is before or after they are captured. One particular moment struck an oddly powerful chord with me. I say odd because it was more about a dog that briefly appeared than any of the human characters. It was a German shepherd that was being used to track down Billy and the other survivors after the battle they lost. The text says how it had sounded so scary off in the distance, but up close it is shaking and afraid. The dog was named Princess and she was borrowed from a nearby farm that morning. The statement that “She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played” struck me enough that I actually put the book down for a moment. This was a fleeting moment in the overall story, but I felt it really fit the theme that soldiers are not typically what we mythologize them to be.
I enjoyed the book most as a meditation on life itself. Billy’s experiences in WWII are fairly linear, but that story is a through-line in a mosaic of the man’s life, of which we see many different phases all out of order. Sometimes he returns to his youth in university, his time in a Veterans Hospital shortly after the war, his waning years after a successful career in optometry, and most importantly, the time he supposedly spends as an exhibit in an alien zoo, whisked away on the night of his daughter’s wedding. By far the weirdest part of the book, which was right up my alley, I loved the way that it framed the idea of time as a set 4th dimension, which these aliens could see all at once, but humans cannot.
It gave Billy a fatalistic view on life, as all things are apparently set in stone and inevitable; they have happened, are happening, will happen, simultaneously. However, in forcing the character to contend with a life he cannot change, I appreciated the consideration of how we choose to examine our lives and focus on the happiness we can find for ourselves. Awful events like the firebombing of Dresden are senseless and perhaps inevitable, but the moments of calm, serenity, and joy that happen over the course of a lifetime are then meant to be too. All of time may not be a tapestry with points we can revisit as we choose, but the idea of the good being just an inevitable and constant as the bad does offer a strange sense of hope.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a classic for a reason, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that. I don’t love it for the same reasons I might something that appeals more to my tastes in escapism, but it was nevertheless a deeply satisfying experience with literature. While frequently dry, darkly funny, and even surreal, it’s also poignant, upfront, and sincere. You may find yourself turned off by the nonlinear storytelling, but if you have the taste for it, I can’t really recommend this book enough.
My Rating: 5 out of 5