Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Fiction Review: Slaughterhouse Five

I've been taking advantage of the stay-at-home orders, closed libraries, and canceled book groups to read from the deep recesses of my To-Be-Read bookcase. One author I have been meaning to read for decades is Kurt Vonnegut. He was a favorite of my father, and I fondly remember him enjoying Vonnegut's novels, one after the other, when I was a kid in the 70's. So, I finally pulled our old paperback copy (one my husband bought for 50 cents at a used bookstore in his hometown as a teen) of Slaughterhouse Five off the shelves. I admit I had been putting off reading it because of the title--what a silly thing to do! It turns out that this modern classic is not about slaughtering animals but about an ordinary life, time travel, aliens who keep humans in a zoo, and World War II. It's a rather unique story that is hard to describe.

The entire book is framed as a novel written by a man (the author?) who has been trying to write a nonfiction history book about the horrific bombing of Dresden at the end of WWII, which killed about 25,000 people (mostly civilians). Instead, he gives up and decides to write a fanciful novel, and the rest of this book is that novel. So, chapter 2 starts with the famous line: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time." Throughout the novel, Billy is a very young chaplain's assistant in WWII (himself a POW in Dresden, held in the basement of a building formerly known as Slaughterhouse Five, at the time of the bombing), an optometrist in upstate New York, a husband, and a father. Oh, and he was abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore, where he was held naked in a zoo with a Hollywood starlet so the aliens could see humans making love. So, there's that. The novel itself is told out of order, beginning when Billy is an older man, a widower, who finally comes clean and goes on the radio and writes to the newspaper about his adventures as an alien captive and time traveler. His grown daughter is, understandably, concerned about his mental state. From there, Billy tells the story of his life, with flashbacks to those surreal days in Dresden, his marriage, his career, and, of course, his experiences on Tralfamadore. Interspersed are the times when Billy suddenly time traveled to a different period of his own life, which makes the slightly mixed-up structure of the novel mirror Billy's life.

This novel is so much more than a plot description. It's very unique tone is difficult to explain. In trying to tell a friend about it, she said it sounded dark and disturbing. And, yes, the WWII scenes are dark--one of Vonnegut's premises is that that early experience affects everything in the rest of Billy's decades of life--but this is a comic novel, filled with absurdities, silliness, and laugh-out-loud moments. Sure, Vonnegut is trying to make some serious points here about the nature of war and its effects on the young people who fight it, but he accomplishes that through farce and dark humor. It's actually a very fun book to read, and a fast-paced, quick read, too, that fit in just right with my current state of mind (which mostly wants to read lighter books right now!). I can see now why Vonnegut appealed so much to my dad, who had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh, and I wish so much that I could sit down to tell him I finally read Vonnegut and talk to him about this unique, wild ride of a novel. I will definitely be reading more of this much-acclaimed author.

215 pages, Dell

Listen to a sample of the audiobook from an early part of the book that describes Billy's life, read by James Franco, and/or download it from Audible.

You can purchase Slaughterhouse Five from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Slaughterhouse Five from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I had no idea there were the "extra" elements in this book. I've always just heard it described as the bombing of Dresden. In fact, I was in Dresden last summer and remember people talking a bit about the book.

    1. ha ha yeah, I really had no idea the novel included time travel and aliens until just recently! From what I've heard, these kinds of absurdities integrated into a real-life story are classic Vonnegut - his way of dealing with difficult topics with a sense of humor. I think it works!