Literary Pop: Slaughterhouse-Five

“There was a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city. Their address was this: ‘Schlachthof-fünf.’ Schlachthof means slaughterhouse. Fünf was good old five.”

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1969
Nationality: American

I read many books these days.  This puts me in a difficult position regarding what to review, especially since I’m out of the habit.  Since this was a book I read last week, and has been one of my most urgent “t0-read”s for a long time, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to me a sensible enough choice to review.  On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known work is hardly a sensible book.  Despite the odd reference I’ve picked up over the slaughterhouse-5years, I had virtually no idea what to expect from the (relatively short) novel, and this was compounded by my tendency not to read blurbs (why spoil the surprise?).  Retrospectively, I’m not sure much could have prepared me for this book.

Slaughterhouse-Five is something of a meta-novel – the narrator sets out the events in third-person, occasionally including his own perspective on a story in which he features as a less-than-minor character.  He does nevertheless appear to have an insight into the inner workings of Billy Pilgrim, our hero (of sorts).  Billy claims to have the ability to travel in time, and as such the narrative constantly flashes forwards and backwards around the central event, the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden.  A conventional view of time sees Billy born in 1922 in Ilium, NY.  A tall, weak youngster, Billy enrols in optometry school before being drafted in 1943, sent to Germany and captured as a POW following the Battle of the Bulge.  Along with his fellow prisoners he is transported to Dresden as contract labour, quartered in the titular Slaughterhouse, and survives the bombings that wipe out the majority of the city.

Billy returns home after the war, and is soon diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  However, he soon completes his studies in optometry, marrying the daughter of the school’s owner.  They have two children, and several years later, on his daughter’s wedding night, Billy is abducted by aliens, taken to the distant planet slaughterhouseTralfamadore and forced to live as an exhibit in a zoo.  He later returns to earth, survives a plane crash and is considered crazy by those who hear his alien experiences, particularly his daughter.  Billy’s life and the novel ‘s narrative converge for the final time at the close of the book, with an event indicating that Billy’s experiences with time might not be all in his head…

I feel like I’ve done the book an injustice by my synopsis.  The flexibility of the temporal structure of the novel and Vonnegut’s sharp wit made this an excellent read, and it certainly loses something when the events are forced into their proper order.  It’s quite short, which is probably wise in ensuring it doesn’t become unreasonably complicated.  I’d definitely recommend it to any fans of Catch-22, although to be honest I’d have to recommend it to almost anyone.  It’s not as confusing as it sounds – read it for yourself and find out!


My rating: 8.5/10


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