Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slaughterhouse-five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes I think my education was sorely lacking--there are so many books I've haven't read, from classics to modern sensations like Slaughterhouse-five.

Central to the book is the fire-bombing of Dresden in WWII and the survival of a group of American prisoners of war who were sheltered in an underground meat locker at the slaughter=house where they slept. Vonnegut himself was among that number, and he appears in the book as the narrator in early and late chapters and occasionally throughout the narrative. The main character, however, is Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain's assistant who becomes unhinged in time, bouncing from the horrors he experiences as a POW to his later life, his death, his kidnapping and imprisonment (in a zoo) by a species of aliens (Tralfamadorians).

The Tralfamadorians have an interesting philosophy. Two key elements: there is no free will and all moments in time exist simultaneously so no one actually dies. After he survives a plane crash 20 years after the war, Billy goes public with his time travel and becomes a minor sensation, spreading the wisdom of the Tralfamadorians wherever he can find an audience (including to a young patient at his optometry practice).

While the book is sometimes classified as science fiction, I never suspended belief enough to take the time travel scenario seriously. Instead, Billy seemed delusional--and with plenty of reason, given what he went through in his military service. In addition, Vonnegut suggests near the end of the book that Billy's "experiences" may have been based on plots of novels by his favorite writer, Kilgore Trout (or at least that's how I read it).

An interesting style note: Vonnegut inserts the phrase "So it goes" numerous times throughout the narrative, after the description of some horrific event or of a death. Each time you read the phrase, it is a reminder of the prominence of death in life.

This would be a great book for a book group discussion--there's a lot it's hard for the individual reader to process/decipher, and an opportunity to talk to others about the meaning they take from the book would be helpful.

Favorite passages:

It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed.

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