Recently, on a trip into town, a few friends and I decided to start a book club. After a desperate hunt around the bookshop to find a book we were all interested in, but which none of us had read, we came across ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ by Kurt Vonnegut. Billed as one of the great anti-war books, but with time-travel mentioned on the back, and reasonably short so it fit in with our deadlines, we thought it would be perfect.
The book is centred around the character Billy Pilgrim who has become unstuck in time. That is, every so often he finds himself in another time of his life. One minute it’s his daughter’s wedding, the next he is back in the war. As well as visiting parts of his life on Earth, Billy also finds himself flicking back to the time he got abducted by aliens. There are also a couple of occasions where Billy ends up running into the author himself, which adds a certain realism/autobiographical element to an otherwise strange tale.
The book starts and ends with the author’s point of view on writing the book about the War, which I found rounded the book nicely. However, it did take me a while to get into, and used to, Billy’s story. The constant flicking backwards and forwards in time was confusing at first, but after a while you start to realise the greater meaning to the story. By paralleling events from the war and in his abduction with events that happened in real life, you start to get a sense of the nature of war and how much it affected him.
Billy, himself, is not the average soldier. He is, essentially, pathetic. But by placing such a character, unarmed and without proper supplies and uniform, Vonnegut shows us how terrible war actually is. The book successfully reshapes the concept of the heroic soldier and a ‘great’ war into one that demonstrates the tragedy of war. Not only that but, by adding ‘And so it goes’ every time a death occurs, it highlights the fact, preventing you from ignoring that death has occurred; it also equalises all the deaths – from carbon monoxide poisoning to the slaughter at Dresden. Every death is important, but every death is also the same, there is no difference in dying in battle than dying at home.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was interesting and had a lot of room for analysis and a lot of meaning to it. I can easily see why it has become a classic and I am glad I read it. However, it was a little confusing at times, and some of the connections were a little tenuous or just plain unbelievable. I do recommend reading it, and it won’t take long to do at all.