book-reviews

Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut

Rating: ★★★

Slaughterhouse V is Vonnegut's famous pseudo-memoir of his time as a prisoner of war in World War 2. It is, ostensibly, about a different person (Billy Pilgrim) who was also there in that moment, and how his life unfolds -- revealed as a jumbled series of snippets from throughout time, connected by conceptual threads and the device of "coming unstuck in time". The sense of how post-war life for veterans is impinged upon by these scenes from the past was beautifully communicated.

The book is a curious and obviously heartfelt mix of allegory and biography. Vonnegut bleeds a sort of open honesty, and makes several knowing self-references, gently explaining the causes of Billy Pilgrim's condition. But the writing is on the whole quite plain; for all its strange structure, this is not a performative piece. It is a collage of morals and attitudes about war, painted with a humanist brush. As it says:

But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.

I do wonder about my lack of reaction to the book. I didn't hate it. There was nothing I really objected to, and I wasn't bored either. On paper, it should thus be enjoyable. But I just wasn't very impressed. I don't feel I'd want to read it again, or advise people to read it unless they seemed a very close fit. I wonder if perhaps I should've read it when I was younger, or if my near-reflex aversion to the topic of World War 2 (instilled by an older generation that seems to think it the most interesting thing in all history) cost me some of the buy-in needed to be swept away.