It’s difficult to know where to start with Vonnegut. His writings are so diffuse, so non-linear, so abstract, that to try and review them is almost a pointless exercise. Vonnegut’s writing makes him seem like an alien, someone with no experience or understanding of the human race trying to document it. When you read his work, you feel like, although he inhabits the same physical space as us, he’s somewhere else. Each time I read Slaughterhouse 5, I’m struck by just how odd a book it is.
That’s not to say it’s not brilliant; it is just that. It’s a masterpiece of the post-modern, it’s the Mona Lisa of post-war literature. You can look at it, read it, you know you’ll never quite understand it, but that won’t stop you loving it. For such a small book, its worth is immeasurable.
How best to describe it? Slaughterhouse 5 is about Billy Pilgrim and his adventures through time. Don’t take this to mean he’s a time traveller, this is very much not the case. As Vonnegut puts it, Billy is unstuck in time. That is, he is alive in the present, and has a life, but every so often he jumps around in time, to various places in space, and various dates in time. The main setting for his jumps is Dresden, Germany, whilst it is being bombed in the Second World War.
(If you’re confused, think The Time Traveller’s Wife; if you tell me that wasn’t at least partially inspired by this book, I won’t believe you.)
I can you didn’t know, Dresden was basically razed to the ground in the Second World War; it was home to many munitions factories, some of which we find Billy in, which made it a strategic attack, but it was also a show of strength by the Allies. It was basically two fingers up to the Nazis – a ‘look what we have the power to do’ kind of thing. With this in mind, you wouldn’t think this could be a particularly funny subject, but with Vonnegut, it really is.
Billy isn’t a soldier, he’s a chaplain’s assistant. And he has all the skills of one. He’s almost totally clueless and willing to be lead around and told what to do, all while the world is ending around him. But he’s just so nonplussed. He’s so ambivalent to everything, he almost sees the world through a child’s eyes, that it’s impossible not to laugh. Vonnegut writes such a brilliant character, the horror of the situation gives way to hilarity, and this is what makes it such a great book.
Billy goes to other places, most notably the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and meets various friendly faces, such as Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout, but I don’t particularly want to go to heavily into the story of this novel. Mainly because I can’t do this book justice. If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years could write Shakespeare, a million Shakespeares at a million typewriters for a million years wouldn’t come close to Vonnegut. And that’s not a jab at Shakespeare, the man’s one of the most important writers who ever lived. It’s just a summing up of how massive Vonnegut’s talent for writing truly is.
Read Slaughterhouse 5 and you’ll know what I’m talking about.