Before reading a book, I like to guess what it will be about based on the title. I’ve been pretty close to the mark with some books, such as: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Three men in a Boat, and The Beginner’s Guide to Taxation Accounting. Judging Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel by its cover, I thought Slaughterhouse Five was the name of a band, like The Jackson Five. My guess was the story followed the band’s rise to success, and then the unsolved mystery of the lead singer’s death—was it an accidental drug overdose, or did a jealous bandmate want him dead? I was way off. Where Vonnegut got his inspiration for this work I’d like to know. It seems he wrote a bunch of unrelated topics on pieces of paper, put them in a hat and then randomly drew out these three: World War II, time travel, and optometry. It’s testament to the man’s genius that from those subjects he was able to produce such a cohesive and impacting tale.
The story follows Billy Pilgrim, who experiences things out of chronological order thanks to a strange case of time-travel that comes upon him at random, transporting him to different points in his own life. Three main areas stand out: his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, his civilian life as a family man and successful optometrist, and his time as part of a zoo exhibit on an alien planet. The aliens who hold him captive have a different way of existence, which helps Billy understand—or at least cope with—his sporadic leaps about time, and the nature of life and death. This proves handy for a man who must endure the atrocities and general senselessness of the frontlines of war. As an older man he tries to share his knowledge of time travel and aliens, but is treated as a fool. The only form of proof he can offer is a prediction of his own death, having experienced it already during his time travels.
Vonnegut offers a “come what may”, almost stoic look at life and death. While this is fun during the time/space travel parts of the book, it is striking in the real life context of World War II and the bombing of the German city of Dresden. The horrors mankind have created is a heavy subject. How on earth people have survived them is heavier still. Truth is more uncomfortable than fiction.
Slaughterhouse Five is written with wit, honesty and imagination. I enjoyed the sci-fi weirdness, but the reality of war was what stuck with me. A unique book indeed. 8/10
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