Book review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The little free library by my local train station had this novel just sitting there when I went past on a regular stroll so I thought why not? and brought it home. I hoovered it up in a couple of hours and it’ll be going back tomorrow or the day after.

You see, I’d like to keep it, but I’m certain with the tottering pile of books I’ve yet to even start, I probably won’t come around to it again very quickly. And when I want to read it again, I’ll buy it again and not feel bad about it. And you know, in the space between here and there, this one copy could provide an intro to Vonnegut to a bunch of others.

Slaughterhouse-Five is as good a smack-upside-the-head introduction to its author’s works as The Crying of Lot 49 is to the world of filing cabinets and weirdoes in which Thomas Pynchon lives. This book wasn’t my first introduction to the writer, mind – that was a copy of Breakfast of Champions I received for my 21st. But this one feels like the proper place to start.

Though short and breezy, the novel is inherently depressing. The subject matter is. The needless firebombing of Dresden, the shipping of combatants and civilians to death camps, the soap of human providence, the way restricted food leads to death – all of these things are not cheery. WW2 was not cheery, despite newsreel what-ho jollies. I suspect this is why Vonnegut had laboured so long over his “Dresden book” and why we’re given the Tralfamadorians – because the unvarnished truth, as lived by the author (this is in part an autobiographical work) grinds humans to paste, eventually.

The book is successful because of its simple sci-fi conceit: the main character has become unmoored in time. He flits between different parts of his life. He’s met with aliens, of course, and they’ve let him in on the secret that everything in life is fixed, and that what’s happening at any one point is almost immaterial: it’s unchangeable, so you might as well go with it. It leads to the most-repeated phrase of the book: so it goes, a fatalistic sign off, a benediction for the dead.

What intrigues me about the chopping between places (war, shagging on another planet, the modern day) is that it mimics the way our memories work. The book’s a meditation on how memory works – jumping about from one place to another, rewriting bits and pieces, and obsessively picking out details – the blue and white colouring of cold (or dead) feet, for one – in moments separated by decades. There’s a real sense of struggling to come to terms with one’s experiences. Not just the enormous, but the mundane.

This review’s not going to add much to the critical canon. It’s a great book, and I’m glad that I read it, particularly given that I’d managed to forget anything I’d heard about it, which let me approach it fresh. It’s a worthy ride, a testament to the fucking stupidity of war, and the inability of humans to avoid it.

So it goes.

My Goodreads reviews are here.

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