’50 Novels’ Slaughterhouse-Five: Afterthoughts

It’s been more than a day since I turned the final page of Slaughterhouse Five and laid it down as a completed read in my 50 Novels reading challenge. So after mulling over it for a bit I thought I’d share a few humble and unqualified thoughts on the book.

Firstly I thought Slaughterhouse Five was an incredible read. Mr. Vonnegut’s style of writing is unique to say the least, but it’s a style that remains wholly readable. The novel primarily follows a fictional American veteran, Billy Pilgrim, who found himself a prisoner of war in Dresden during the time of its infamous bombing by the Americans in 1945. What makes Billy’s story unique however, is that Billy, in the decades following the war, is abducted by an alien race – the Tralfamadorians, who introduce him to the fourth-dimension of time travel. Subsequently, Billy spends his time in the novel zipping back and forth to various times in his life, but primarily back and forth to the time when he was the prisoner of war.

It’s clear that Slaughterhouse Five is particularly personal to Mr. Vonnegut. Having himself been a POW in Dresden at the time of the bombing, this novel is to some extent biographical (and to some other extent cleansing of some inner ‘demons’?). Mr. Vonnegut uses the first chapter to explain this to the reader and for me, this was one of the most interesting chapters of the book (although some argue that this first chapter is also wholly fictional too).

Having been an eye-witness to the war, it is no surprise that Slaughterhouse Five is presented by Mr. Vonngut as being anti-war in nature and this is wholly apparent. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, by posting specific examples, but needless to say, once read, Slaughterhouse Five’s anti-war message is clear. I was surprised though that Mr Vonnegut’s ‘account’ of the bombing of Dresden was not quite as graphic as I’d imagined it would be. As a work that is so wholly anti-war, I would have expected Mr. Vonnegut to infuse his narrative with copious amounts of gory detail. Don’t get me wrong the ‘gory detail’ is there (the description of the ‘corpse mines’ is unforgettably powerful) but instead of endless gore, Mr Vonnegut provides the ‘graphical’ in less gory, but more powerful ways. For instance the reader is left in no doubt as to the extent of the devastation caused by the bombing of Dresden, with Billy comparing the bombed landscape to the surface of the moon, and the intesity of the firestorm illustrated through the presence of ‘dollops of melted glass’.

One thing that did give me a warm feeling in Slaughterhouse-Five (aside from the anti-war sentiment), was the Tralfamadorian concept that humans never actually die. Sure we go through the process of death, but as we have existed in the first place, we are perpetually alive at some point in time. It’s just a matter of utilising the Tralfamadorian’s fourth dimension and traveling to that time, where any and all of us, are well and truly alive and kicking. Nice!

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Favourite Quote: “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years”.

Favourite Scene: Billy Pilgrim watching a backward playing film about American planes bombing Germany. The narrative explained what happened in the backward playing version. Effectively the bombers ‘sucked up’ the destruction, returned to base unharmed, the bombs were dismantled and the minerals buried back in the ground “so they would never hurt anybody again”.

What this novel has taught me about writing: Don’t be afraid to mix things up. On paper a story which combines an eyewitness account of the bombing of Dresden, an alien race and time travel, makes it sound from the outset as though it’s going to be some bizarre tale full of disjointed confusion. However I never once found this novel to be in the slighest bit, disjointed or confusing. Mr. Vonnegut makes all the components work beautifully together.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

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