Slaughterhouse-Five Review
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With its unconventional, non-linear narrative, Slaughterhouse-Five—Kurt Vonnegut’s post-modern experiment in mercurial meta-fiction and darkly humorous comment on the absurdity of war—still manages to provoke, entertain, and disturb, even after nearly 40 years.

The novel opens with a first-person narration, in which Vonnegut explains the incident that led to the writing of the book: the firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. The author himself survived the bombing, so we’re entering a dark, semi-autobiographical world. The audience becomes privy to some of the author’s more demonic thoughts and memories as life takes on the paradoxical smell of “mustard gas and roses.” In chapter one, the author promises the reader—via the character of Mary O’Hare, the wife of an old war buddy—that he’ll portray the war as it was (fought by children) and not simply glamorize the event.

Soon enough, the reader is introduced to Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego (and surrogate everyman). From there, Vonnegut swiftly propels Billy into a bizarre world that combines chaos, absurdity, and pathos in equal measure. From German prisoner of war camps to the alien environs of Tralfamadore, where Billy is confined as an exhibit in an alien zoo and forced to mate with a porn actress, the narrative twists and turns, jumps and leaps through a myriad of strange and gorgeous situations. One never knows where the author will send Billy next. Vonnegut argues at one point that the text is deliberately confusing because, ultimately, “there is nothing intelligent to say about massacre” or war.

With a repetition of phrases (so it goes!), Vonnegut links Billy’s confused journey with our confused understanding of the non-linear narrative. Billy is even given some spiritual lessons by the Tralfamadorians (a crazy race of plunger beings with the ability to see in four dimensions) on enlightenment and the nature of death in his temporal search for identity. They even give him an understanding of the great monster that has consumed his life: war.

To paint an overall picture of Slaughterhouse-Five’s complexity is nigh-on impossible. I’ve read this book multiple times now, and I still find new themes, images, and rhetoric to focus on with each reading. Coming in at a little over 200 pages, Slaughterhouse-Five packs a punch that (if one is prepared to work through the initial confusion) will leave the reader reeling and breathless by the end.

What makes Vonnegut’s work so provocative and intellectual is his ability to weave theme and imagery together. Only when it’s viewed as a whole can one see a pattern, pushing through the fog of war and words. Like a jigsaw puzzle or a dream analysis, Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim create a picture that, ironically, does say something intelligent about war.

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