Reviewing “Slaughterhouse 5”

We interrupt your previously scheduled programming for an interim review. I don’t know how reading books goes for you guys but I rarely read in an organised manner which is how I ended up reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse 5” instead of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” which is going to get pushed till next week.

I started reading Vonnegut’s novel at the shear insistence of my brother but he is far from the only one singing this book’s praises. “Slaughterhouse 5” is one of the most influential modern war novels along with books like “Catch 22”. So coming into the novel I had a lot of expectations which may have in this case worked to the detriment of the novel.

The main plot of the novel is actually a story within a story in which the narrator, a war veteran has had a life long desire to write a novel about the horror of the massacre of Dresden which he witnessed. The story he ends up writing is that of Billy Pilgrim who, before being shipped off as a POW to Dresden comes delinked from time. From that point onward he travels back and forth on his own timeline with no point being the beginning or ending. There are also Aliens which I won’t get into. Its better to read that for yourself.

I had several problems with the novel. To be sure, the novel is very clever, written and structured immaculately, as well as being quite hard hitting but the combined expectations that I had of the novel led me to expect more from this than was perhaps fair.

For one the novel isn’t very humorous at all. That may be an odd expectation from a war novel but Vonnegut is known for his satirical and often laugh-out-loud takes on horrible subjects hence the link to “Catch 22” but it just wasn’t that. The novel works quite well as a serious but wry attempt to depict a little known atrocity but without the objectivity that humor gives, I felt that the novel does little to add to the idea that war is, in fact, terrible.

Another issue that I saw was that the topic itself didn’t hit me as hard as it could have. Perhaps because the World Wars have been such a constant topic of discussion, I have grown slightly apathetic to generalized depictions of it. I only really felt the tragedy of it in specific situations such as “The boy in striped pajamas” but here because the atrocity is so large and because Vonnegut rarely gives you time to empathize or invest in a character, their fates don’t really have much of a hold on the reader.

All this being said the books is far from being bad, its actually quite brilliant in its execution. The author’s ability to meld time lines so seamlessly is astounding and really shows his skill. His attempt to show a life as an eternal instance moving endlessly where there is no real future, present or past but where all of these have already happened, are happening and will be happening, eternity in an instant is also fascinating.

I’m sorry if that’s confusing but the sci-fi tinge that Vonnegut gives to the material helps to put life into perspective especially for those who felt that the Second World War was the end of the world. Time ceases to exist for them and the idea that everything is fixed in their lives can be a source of comfort.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the novel is just this fixity in time. In spite of the fact that it is written brilliantly, it seems a bit dated in its perceptions making it more difficult to apply to people of this age but not dated enough that I can enjoy it from a completely removed perspective.

The novel would certainly have been more hard hitting at the time it came out and it still packs a punch though at times it stumbles. Overall give it a read if you have the time, if nothing else then just to admire the brilliant writing.

Rating: 3.5 Stars

 

 

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