#71 Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut


I want to do cartwheels around this book. It is weird and wonderful and makes fun of serious things—the greatest combination since social media + mothers with spare time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those novels that cannot be divorced from context. Kurt Vonnegut famously drew, in much of his writing, from his own experiences as a soldier in World War II. The book’s pivotal event is the Bombing of Dresden in 1945, which Vonnegut personally witnessed as a POW—and which he incorporated into five other novels. So profound were the effects of war on Vonnegut’s consciousness that he gave up on writing Slaughterhouse-Five in a linear format. Instead, he opted for jumbled time jumps better suited to the aftermath of atrocity and devastation. 

So that’s the serious stuff. Vonnegut gives all of the above a rigorous satirical treatment, with feckless protagonist Billy Pilgrim surviving the war with minimal survival skills and no discernible will to live. He also survives a plane crash and an alien kidnapping, just for good measure, before his public assassination at a convention in Chicago.

In most books, we’d expect a protagonist’s death to derail the story somewhat. But Billy learns from his alien abductors that all time exists simultaneously—and even though people die, they are alive at other points in time. Death is so mundane in Slaughterhouse-Five that it has its own refrain:

So it goes.

This is a book about war that does not glorify war. It is a book that calls into question whether free will exists, and whether we even want it to. Its climax is a scene just after the fire bombing of Dresden in which an American soldier is arrested for stealing a teapot among the ruins. He is tried, sentenced, and executed by firing squad for his crime.

So it goes.

Vonnegut is ever-present in the book, a unique voice telling an extraordinary story from a peculiar point of view. As always with eccentric authors, stylistic comparison is both difficult and futile. Mostly, you will laugh out loud and then wonder if you’re weird.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It is wisdom and truth spun into an original and entertaining web—the very best kind of book.

Favorite Quotes:

All this happened, more or less.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.

He ate a pear. It was a hard one. It fought back against his grinding teeth. It snapped in juicy protest.

Read: 2011