Tom’s Bookshelf: Slaughterhouse-Five

4/5 Stars

Critic Score: A-
Reader Score: B+

Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a postmodern science-fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut known for its anti-war themes and experimental treatment of narrative chronology. The story follows Billy Pilgrim through various times in his life as a WWII Soldier and veteran. Many critics have argued that the plot structure is a function of PTSD’s distortion of time and reality, and Vonnegut has often been praised for his black humor and sensibilities toward the human condition.

This novel was much easier to read than I expected. Maybe I’m missing its complexities and hidden meanings, or maybe it’s meant to be approachable and digestible. (I expect the latter is true.) Towards the end, an editor on a radio show jokes about people being able to read novels easily these days—as if novels need to be difficult to be of high quality. I think Vonnegut is keenly aware of how to approach readers for entertainment value. Importantly, the print is huge in the paperback and hardcover editions, and there are so many scene breaks that create lots of empty space on the page. You end up with a satisfyingly quick read.

The book’s voice is unique and genuine, as it evokes a postmodern, war-torn mental landscape with hints of existential numbness and black humor. The author isn’t trying to write some complex, cryptic, elegant, formalistic work—there’s a sense of word vomit and being too tired to make much sense of the consequent mess, and there’s a complete structural dismissal of traditional novel form to add to the sense that this book’s working in a field of its own.

An issue I have with the work revolved around the concept of time. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, lives his life out of order, over and over, by time-traveling forward and backward in random sequence, to and from any year in his lifespan. I don’t see how this setup doesn’t have errors in its conception, or at least aspects irresponsibly unexplained. Or is that the point?

Does Billy revisit moments over and over for eternity, and so he can live forever? If he could only experience the moments of his life once each, then the narrator is wrong when he says life is eternal: Billy will run out of moments eventually. Also, when Billy does jump around in time, is he aware that he wasn’t, for instance, just in a hospital bed but in his dentist’s office years ahead? After all, if he is not aware of the change, and if he believes he’s experiencing the moment for the first time, then there is no actual jumping around in time because jumping around exists in one’s perception of time. The timeline is not broken up, it’s only the way one is seeing it. If Billy’s not perceiving this jumping, then he’s not actually doing it. I can’t imagine Vonnegut is wrong, though. I’m suspecting I just don’t get it.

But I think I get the point, or the surface of it, which is that war tears up our sense of past, present, and future as a result of PTSD/related reality-distorting mental illnesses, a loss of hope for humanity and goodness, the disillusionment of free will, and feeling like life has no meaning. Thus the humor and scatter-brained experience of living out days that seem to add up to nothing.

This issue didn’t make the read frustrating, thankfully. I ended up finishing wanting more and filled with surprise that it had gone so quickly, and I guess that’s the kind of life Vonnegut’s humane prose is striving for. 

How’s my review system work? I give stars out of five based on the averaging of two letter grades, Critic and Reader. My Critic Score is based on writing quality, contribution to culture, ethics, consistency, plot development, characters, style, originality, and overall how well the book accomplishes its creative and intellectual goals, among other factors. On the other hand, my Reader Score is a personal reflection on how much I enjoyed the work, regardless of what makes a book “good” or “bad;” it takes into account both entertainment value and my own tastes and life experiences. B is the median of my letter grades, with As for outstanding work and Cs for generally disappointing work. D and F grades are out of the ordinary and given when my disapproval is strong.

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