Thanks to Half-Price Books and their seemingly bottomless selection of the classics, I was able to pick up Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, yet another frequently assigned book that I managed to miss the window on. It is also me first experience with anything by Vonnegut, and just like with Salinger and Orwell, I was surprised by what I found.
The Situation: Billy Pilgrim is a World War II veteran who would survive being a prisoner of war and come back to the US to be an extremely successful optometrist with a wife, a son, and a daughter. Billy survived the raid on Dresden, Germany, which happened to be even an even worse incident than what happened to Hiroshima. But as I said, he survives, and is able to come back live a fairly normal life.
The Problem: Billy Pilgrim time travels. So not only did he survive WWII, but he has survived it over and over again. He has also survived a plane crash that took the life of everyone on board except for himself and the co-pilot; he has survived a stay in the hospital after having something of a nervous breakdown after returning from the war; he has relived his wedding day; he has relived the birth of his children; he has even relived his abduction by aliens, over and over again. He even confesses to having experience his own death several times over. So it goes. Billy can never really tell when he is going to travel in time, nor can he tell if he is about to go forward or backwards, and how far. It of course causes hm some confusion, but also some to the people around him as he seems to either fall asleep or faint when it happens. And as he gets older, he becomes less guarded about who knows about both the time travel and the abduction, and that comes with its own set of problems.
Genre, Themes, History: Of course, time travel as well as life and death are going to be big themes in this novel that is often labeled as anti-war. Other labels that have been applied to this book include science fiction, meta fiction, and dark comedy...which I totally get as there were parts where I would giggle to myself and then immediately feel kind of bad that I did (Flannery O'Connor anyone?).
The slaughterhouse mentioned in the novel is a real building that Vonnegut himself was imprisoned in. And it is because of the meat locker in this building that both Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim are able to survive the bombing of Dresden. This bombing is the central event that seems to effect the rest of Billy's life, thus lending some legitimacy to the anti-war label.
Also, this book comes with the very fun (depending on now you look at it) issue of having almost two, count them, two unreliable narrators. The original narrator was also in Dresden during WWII when the raid happened and it has effected his life immensely, so he decides to write a book about it and the story about Billy Pilgrim is what he comes up with. And while Billy is never actually a narrator in the story, it is hard to take his claims of time travel and abduction seriously as his so-called experiences appear to mirror incidents he read about or heard about somewhere else.
My Verdict: Usually stories that have the narration jump from one time period to another usually get on my nerves about three chapters in, but I wasn't annoyed by the way Vonnegut told this story at all. However, and I'm not sure if it was some of the subject matter, or the character of Billy Pilgrim, or the fact that this was a book about part of WWII, but I did find myself getting bored some of the time. Overall, I would recommend it as one of those books everyone should read a least once. It is short and not at all dense or hard to follow.
Favorite Moment: I can't really pick out a particular moment, but I did like Vonnegut's constant use of the phrase "So it goes," to mark a death. Any death...including dead champagne...as in it had gone flat.
Favorite Character: Kilgore Trout, the amazingly unsuccessful science fiction writer that Billy and maybe one other person on Earth actually appreciated. He makes only a brief appearance and is clearly a spiteful, bitter, manipulative and friendless old man. But for some reason he makes me smile.
Recommended Reading: Only because I am struggling to think of something better to recommend, I will go ahead and suggest 1984 by George Orwell. The two book are written about 20 years apart, but the both deal with war and it's effects on the individual as well as the group.