Book/Author and Year Published: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany

Age/Genre: Satiric Metafiction, Science Fiction, Political Fiction

Preferred Reading Environment: Your hospital bed

Reading Accoutrements: Lime Jell-O and a thin hospital blanket

Content Notes: Super horrifying, gruesome, and gory death. So it goes.

Jeriann: Slaughterhouse-Five has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and recently I decided it was finally time to sit down and read it. I thought it would be nice to have a break from all the English World War II novels we’ve been reading and get a nice change of scenery with an American World War II novel. Heh. 

I asked Bethany if she wanted to co-review this with me, even though I know Kurt Vonnegut isn’t right up her alley (we had a professor who liked him and the beat authors WAY too much). But I always think of Bethany when Slaughterhouse-Five comes up because her sister has the BEST story about the book.

Bethany: My sister, Dani, read this book in college and really enjoyed it. She was talking to one of her bosses about it (a Chiropractor in the office where she worked as a massage therapist) and asked if he had ever read Slaughterhouse-Five.

His response was, “I haven’t even read Slaughterhouse One yet.” Buh-Dum-Tch! (He was serious though.)

Jeriann: Ah, it gets me every time.  

Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five based on his experiences in World War II. The story follows Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become unstuck in time and is moved throughout the events of his life in a non-linear fashion. At the age of 19, Billy was a chaplain in the war and was captured by the Germans, witnessing and experiencing many true terrors, including the firebombing of Dresden.

Jeriann (simultaneously with Bethany): The first chapter really intrigued and confused me…

Bethany (simultaneously with Jeriann): The first chapter really confused and – wait, really? You were intrigued by the first chapter???

Jeriann: Yes, as I was saying… I was both intrigued and confused by the fact that Vonnegut opens up by narrating as himself. This isn’t a forward, mind you, but the first chapter. So I wasn’t sure if we were reading a framing device and the speaker was a fictional version of Vonnegut or if we were supposed to be reading this as a memoir of sorts. As soon as the second chapter begins, though, it becomes pretty clear that the bulk of this book is the fictional tale of Billy Pilgrim, set in the real experiences of Kurt Vonnegut (and I looked up several of the events Vonnegut references in his narration – most of them appear to be true). 

Bethany: For me, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five simply served to give me an idea of how confused I should plan to feel for the remainder of this book. Vonnegut writes like he thinks – which is to say that he writes like a 60-year-old alcoholic sitting on his bar stool speaks. It set the tone rather accurately for the rest of the novel. I was still confused.

As you might have guessed from the synopsis, the plot of this book is not linear. Because of the complicated nature of the timeline, we’re not going into too many plot-specific details, as avoiding spoilers would be a chore. We would be remiss in leaving out that this is a book written by a man in the sixties, so the way women are talked about isn’t great. Women are mostly reduced to their looks and reproductive capabilities, though Vonnegut does grant that being a trained nurse is “a fine profession for a woman” *eye roll*. Overall though, the sexist undertones didn’t take away from the rest of the book, we just would have enjoyed it more without them.

Bethany: Dani once told me (borrowing a quote from Dr. Who at the time – I’m so proud of my little sister) that time in this book is “wibbly-wobbly.”

Jeriann: I thought that the jumping back and forth in time was an interesting illustration of how war never really ends, and particularly never leaves the people who experience it. Billy jumps from traumatic war experiences to mundane social interactions. I think many veterans have similar problems coping with everyday life after witnessing so many atrocities in war. The time travel aspect serves to make this juxtaposition clearer, and more ridiculous. After all, why should Billy care about his optometrist career when he knows poor old Edward Derby is doomed to death by firing squad? 

Vonnegut explains to the reader immediately upon introduction that Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time and that he has also been abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, though these two circumstances are not directly connected to each other. The aliens serve as a useful tool for explaining how Vonnegut is presenting time in this novel, because they are able to see in four dimensions, and experience time simultaneously rather than linearly. Billy questions the aliens about the existence of free will, to which they respond that humans are the only creatures they’ve ever encountered who believe in the concept.

Jeriann: I found this interesting as an anti-war statement. It paints a pretty bleak picture that humanity is doomed to perpetual war and violence. Vonnegut even hints at this possibility in his intro, sharing that a colleague often asked anti-war novelists, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” The point being that wars are as easy to stop as glaciers, which Vonnegut states he believes is true. And yet, this bleak outlook is not used to accept war, but rather to critique it, despite the lack of proposed solutions. The satirical tone makes it difficult to decipher Vonnegut’s exact meaning in a lot of places, which I found made the book kind of a puzzle….

Bethany: And I found tedious…

Jeriann: I do think this book was meant as a way to open up discussion, and not to present concrete answers. And in that, I believe it succeeds marvelously, because all I’ve wanted to talk about this week is Slaughterhouse-Five.

Bethany: Okay, okay…it’s pretty clear that I do not think this book is a masterpiece (and Jeriann does). However! There is one part…or message?…of this book that I actually really like and appreciate. And it (unsurprisingly, if you read our review of The Lunar Chronicles) has to do with the ALIENS.

While he spends time with the aliens, Billy asks them – a clearly more intelligent species – a lot of questions. They answer him patiently, although they often know that Billy cannot understand the full concept because he is limited to perceptions of three dimensions as opposed to four. One of those concepts is death and grief. The Tralfamadorians experience every event happening simultaneously, and choose to focus on specific events for specific purposes. When Billy asks why they don’t grieve for lost loved ones, they are confused. Why would they grieve when their loved one is still alive – simply at a different moment in time? They can go back to their loved one at any time, much like Billy can go back in his memory and see his dead mother or wife. So it goes. Of course, Billy also travels through time, but that doesn’t comfort me – a person who cannot travel through time to see or interact with my loved ones.

Jeriann: The Tralfamadorians, existing perpetually, fully accept that things die (so it goes) and that death is not a bad thing. They accept this to the extent that they don’t try to change things, even the end of the universe. In his time travels, Billy never makes any attempt to change outcomes, even ones that upset him. This is consistent with the idea of lack of free will, but I think it hurts the anti-war message. I don’t want to be told about all the atrocities of war and then be told there’s nothing we can do to fix it. I don’t think that’s a useful perspective. Sure, there is always going to be corruption, but I don’t believe that means we can’t make improvements. I would have loved if this novel offered some sort of a way forward, but I do see many reasons why Vonnegut could have chosen not to do that.

Bethany: So, now we can add “fatalistic” to our list of things this book is…I get that it’s a satire, so the point is to be a little absurd. And I actually like some satirical works, like articles in The Onion, etc. Maybe my problem is that a book is too long for satire when all it does is point out flaws instead of offering solutions. If I’m being honest, I might read this book again when I’m in a different frame of mind (AKA not obsessively reading every romance novel I can get my hands on) because I imagine that will change my perspective. Maybe I’ll come back to it in 5…10…okay, 20 years…

Jeriann: I did think early on in the book that this illustrated how to exist as an anti-war person, but not really how to stop war itself. Vonnegut writes the book to express his outrage, not because he thinks it will have a measurable impact.

Overall, Slaughterhouse-Five is an artfully written criticism of war, and worth reading if you’re in the mood for a lot of thinking and a certain level of dissatisfaction. It’s clear why this is the Vonnegut novel that secured his place in the literary canon, and most of the messages still feel pertinent today. One of the quotes that hit the hardest was “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor.” Earlier, we mentioned that this was a World War II novel, but it’s really a commentary on war and society in general that uses World War II to illustrate its points. 

What’s a literary classic you’d like to see us review? Share your requests in the comments!

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