Friday, December 21, 2018

Review of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 1969)

Billy Pilgrim’s life is fractured by time-shifting; shuttling back-and-forth between the various episodes in his life. Three key moments haunt his existence: the fire-bombing of Dresden, which he witnessed and survived as a prisoner of war; a plane crash from which he was one of two survivors; and his abduction by aliens and time spent in their zoo. Unlike everyone else, Billy knows his fate, he’s witnessed his whole life and he knows he is condemned to live it without being able to change any of the outcomes. He also knows that the fate of Dresden was a crime against humanity and that he’ll experience a succession of bitter-sweet moments.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered one of the great anti-war novels, written at the time of Vietnam war but using the Second World War, and the Battle of the Bulge and the firebombing of Dresden, as a means to consider war’s horrors. Vonnegut writes the start and end in an autobiographical voice and the rest as a witness to Billy Pilgrim’s life. The narrative itself consists of short passages that jump back-and-forth in time, following the logic of non-linear time as professed by the aliens that at one point abduct Pilgrim. Vonnegut explains this through a statement from an alien explaining how their books work: “There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages [swap for passages], except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” In this way, there is a weakened story arc, the full extent and resonance of the tale only coming into focus at the end as all the passages are then seen. To me, this focus on the nature of time, and the non-conventional narrative flow were the most interesting aspects of the story. Billy Pilgrim’s story was engaging enough; partly tragic, partly comic, and partly absurd, but the strong teleological, fated nature of time undermined the anti-war message to me as history is doomed to always repeat itself and cannot be changed, so why bother trying?

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