Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

Summary: A fragmented telling of the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden in World War II, an optometrist, and an alien abductee.

Musings: I read this book as assigned reading in high school although I remembered close to nothing about the book itself. In fact, when I added Slaughterhouse-Five to my "potential books" list, I believe I was thinking of Fahrenheit 451, not Vonnegut's novel (A "so it goes" is probably appropriate here).

As I read, I kept thinking what I must have missed back in high school. I really enjoyed the book and am looking forward to reading more Vonnegut, but I can't imagine I appreciated the book as a teenager.

From the beginning, Vonnegut demonstrates that war is not glorious. Soldiers are not heroic or special. War is not even horrifyingly brutal, at least on the surface. It is meaningless. It creates apathy and disinterest. It makes the anticipation of life and the pointlessness of death equally unaffecting. It is this that makes war so terrible.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a mishmash of snippets in time. From the Tralfamadorians, the alien abductors, Billy learns that time is not linear, but instead every moment in time always exists, like a series of photographs. Although this is supposedly a reassuring thought in death, because everyone's alive in other moments, in practice it means life is not worth the effort. If everything that will happen is already in existence, then there are no real choices to make and ability to change one's circumstances.

The tiny "chapters" of the book make it a quick read, and the non-linear timeline is not confusing. The science fiction aspect of the novel allows the reader a glimpse into how much Billy's experiences have fractured his mind into a machine attempting to fit together his empty pieces of experience. Vonnegut works himself into the novel on a few occasions, throwing in an "I was there," which reaffirms the very real events used as the basis of the novel.

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