How do you almost make it to your 30th birthday without picking up any Vonnegut? This was the question I asked myself at the end of 2013 as I was making my 2014 author ambitions list for a booktube video. I realized I’d hyped him up in my head and was now intimidated to open one of his novels. He’d become this giant mythical literary thing that would be over my head and far too dense to make any sense of. What utter silliness.
Billy Pilgrim is a lackluster soldier thrust into the middle of WWII unprepared. Almost immediately he’s captured by the Germans and sent to Dresden as contract labor. In his spare time, he travels back and forth in time to different points in his life – his birth, his childhood, his post-war career as a successful optometrist, and even his own death. Billy is unstuck in time. He’s also abducted by aliens.
Slaughterhouse-Five is in some ways autobiographical. The novel is bookended in Vonnegut’s own voice as he discusses his challenges with telling this story about his time in WWII. Billy Pilgrim becomes his narrative vehicle. The reader follows along with Billy as his life’s story unfolds not chronologically but in bits and pieces – out of order – creating a very disorienting mindspace within the plot. It mimics the confusion and psychological effects that soldiers feel as the result of war trauma. Getting to experience this disorientation as the reader – even in such a small way – helps you connect personally with Pilgrim, and ultimately, Vonnegut.
What surprised me most was how engaging and accessible I found Vonnegut’s prose. Slaughterhouse-Five manages to be a plot-drive novel filled with utterly delightful dialogue that is never boring. That’s not to say the book lacks literary merit. The book brims with themes of time and freewill. To be honest, I’ve never read such a well-expressed anti-war novel. There’s no preachiness. There’s nothing emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental. Hell, most of the thing is sarcastic and funny and enchanting. I loved every page and was sad when it ended. Give me more Vonnegut, she cries!!