Book review: Slaughterhouse-five

Slaughterhouse-five - my copy
“Slaughterhouse-five” is another great American classic ticked off my list *dance in jubilation* and an absolute stunner centered around the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, Germany. As an anti-war novel, the biggest surprise I had was that the story is incredibly subtle when it comes to expressing the horrors of the destruction, opting for absurdism and black humor to drive across its message. This reminds me of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” where a man was transformed into a cockroach-like monstrous insect, for both books similarly have these insane and unbelievable story plots.

In Slaughterhouse-five, Kurt Vonnegut wonderfully ditched conventional chronological narration to manipulate time through slicing the life events of the main character Billy Pilgrim into pieces, shuffling them around and showcasing the final pieces as a brand new cubist painting. One of the wacky story lines, which no doubt is my favorite part from the book, was when Pilgrim met an alien race called Tralfamadorians who abducted him and whisked him off to their planet:

“Welcome abroad, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, though for a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen some bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

As incredulous as extraterrestrial encounters sound in a non-sci-fi book about World War Two, it is through the foreign and curious eyes of the aliens that Vonnegut posed questions about things humans have always took for granted, such as our concept of time and existence; and through the mouths of them that he conveys his cynicism towards humanity.

“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

And so it goes. Three simple words but are one of the most famous phrases from this book and perhaps of Vonnegut himself could be best used to summarize this book in a casual, weary and emotionless way in contrast with the gravity of the war. Slaughterhouse-five is a must-have and a must-read in your library.


13 thoughts on “Book review: Slaughterhouse-five

  1. I read about one month ago “A Man Without a Country”, one of the Vonnegut’s book. I really enjoyed reading it and now, thanks to your review, I’m sure I will read this book too

  2. This book is one of my top fives.
    It is short but incredibly powerful. Like a sharp slap in the face.
    I reckon it gives a very clear insight into the horrors of war….
    I also rate Catch-22.

  3. Great point about the absurdity used to tell the anti-war message. One of the most powerful parts to me was when one officer (can’t remember his name, but I think he was a teacher) fought courageously and survived many battles, but was shot for stealing a teapot. We like to think of WWII in a romantic, black and white say, and Vonnegut rips this away with Slaughterhouse. Good post!

  4. It’s always fun to go back and read some things you read so many years ago. I’m in the middle of “Sometimes A Great Notion” right now. Not an easy read as Kesey jumps from time period to time period and one narrator after another, but still fascinating.

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