Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
So it goes.
This review has moderate spoilers but won’t stop you from enjoying the book if you’re yet to read it. However, this review has MAJOR spoilers for 2016’s Arrival starring Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen this film and plan to do so, maybe don’t read this review.
Did you watch Arrival and think ‘wow, such an original idea’? Sorry folks, Slaughterhouse-Five did it first. It just didn’t do it as a fake-out big plot twist at the end. Learning that the main character was living her life all at once was cool, but it just made me think Slaughterhouse-Five did it better.
The story follows Billy Pilgrim, a WWII prisoner of war (POW) in Dresden when the bombs hit. This book is essentially him coming to terms with his time as a soldier (also read as: PTSD). Where it leaves the real and becomes so much more is that Billy has become unstuck in time. He walks through one door and enters a completely different part of his life. His lives all his life at once, knowing his death (so it goes) and other major events in his life.
Billy believes he became unstuck in time after being abducted by Tralfamadorians. They put him what he calls an enclosure in a zoo so they can study him. These four-dimensional aliens perceive time as a collection of moments existing at the same time rather than in a linear sequence. When they return him to Earth, he begins to teach others what he learned on Tralfamadore.
This book is loosely based on author Kurt Vonnegut’s experience during WWII as a POW in Dresden. And when I say loosely based, I mean as loose as a cat who’s just escaped from being kept in the house after you’ve moved. You’ve got to catch it, but you don’t want to get hurt in the process. Chapter one is more of a preface than an actual part of the story. Clearly autobiographical, Vonnegut tells us what happens at the beginning and end of the story we are about to read. You’d think a book that spoils its own ending at the start of the book might be a dull read, but it’s really the journey not the destination with Slaughterhouse-Five. It also fits with the unstuck in time narrative.
Vonnegut turns up from time to time in the narrative. This is seen most often when the phrase ‘so it goes’ is said after each mention of death. His insertions in the narrative also helps us to question whether Billy is really unstuck in time or suffering from some severe form of PTSD.
There are many characters in this book, but most of them are forgetful and used as background fodder for the main character. Billy’s fellow POW, his chubby but loving wife Valencia, and his kids are all rather bland. This helps us focus on Billy and Vonnegut’s narrative. Before you ask, no, I’m not a fan that basically the only character trait we know about his wife is that she’s fat. But it’s ok because she is loving and nice (and her Daddy is rich). Her reason for loving him so much? Because she thought that nobody would ever marry her because she’s so fat. Booooooooooooooo.
Besides Billy and Vonnegut (who I’ve covered enough in the plot section), there are two other characters that piqued my interest. They are Mary O’Hare and Montana Wildhack.
Mary O’Hare is the non-fictional wife of Vonnegut’s POW buddy Bernard. When he tells the couple he is writing a book about his time in Dresden she gets mad, as she thinks he is going to glorify war. Vonnegut goes on to tell a story that is very anti-war. One of the dedications in this book is to Mary, likely due to her insistence that pro-war media will likely lead to more war. Vonnegut clearly has a great respect for Mary, which is nice to see when the female characters in this book aren’t… great.
Montana Wildhack is a porn star who is also abducted by the Tralfamadorians and put in the enclosure with Billy. While in the zoo, they fall in love and she has his child. She stays in the zoo with their child after Billy is returned to Earth. Billy sees her adult videos in a store during the book, and a magazine cover stating she has vanished. She is an interesting part of the book because she makes us question Billy’s narrative. Unreliable narrators a la Fight Club are an absolute favourite trope of mine. Billy is very unreliable. I love it!
One more character I should quickly mention is Kilgore Trout. He’s the Stan Lee of Kurt Vonnegut books, making cameos in most of his works and acts as Vonnegut’s alter ego. In this iteration, Billy is a fan of Trout’s somewhat unsuccessful Science Fiction books.
The audio book available on Audible is performed by James Franco. I’m not a huge fan of all of Franco’s work (This is the End is terrible and you can’t change my mind) but his performance is amazing. He captured the depressing nature of the story. The heaviness of war. I would highly recommend this audio book.
This book is for you if:
- Unreliable narrators are intriguing to you. Billy is a doozy.
- You like Science Fiction. This has interesting time concepts matched by any other classic time travel stories. Also, you know, aliens.
- War stories are your jam. Even if you’re not into Science Fiction, Vonnegut’s first-hand experience of the bombing of Dresden is a must read.
- I feel like I’ve said this in a lot of my reviews lately, but you’re looking for a quick read. At only 218 pages, it’s a good weekend read.
- You’re a fan of Vonnegut’s other works. This is his most well-known, and for good reason.
This book might not be for you if:
- Books on time travel or other dimensions aren’t your thing. If you really like war stories though, I recommend you still give it a go.
- You like a story told straight. You don’t want to know the ending at the beginning.
- This book has a lot of themes around PTSD. If this may be a trigger for you, take this into consideration.
TL;DR Slaughterhouse-Five is an absolute classic told in such a unique way. Kurt Vonnegut deserves his reputation as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and this book is a testament to this. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to get into Vonnegut’s work.
R. M. Waenga