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Slaughterhouse 5: Or, the Children's Crusade, A Duty-Dance with DeathSlaughterhouse 5: Or, the Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

People keep saying that this is the story of Billy Pilgrim; World War II veteran, optometrist and time-traveller. I wish they wouldn’t do that, because that is not true.

This book is about TRYING to write about the unspeakable horrors of war (in this case, the Dresden bombing) and discovering that you simply cannot. It is about how when a mind is trying to draw on suppressed terrors, will constantly be diverted to other more manageable things like stupid insignificant moments of life.

‘Slaughterhouse 5’ is a story about failing to write about Dresden. Anyone knows that in order to write about something, one must first make sense of it. Yet the problem with wars is that almost all of them are pretty senseless. It is a proven fact that after a certain point, nobody really knows what is going on anymore. Vonnegut underlines this, and points out how this is true of every other bombing in world history including Hiroshima. ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ is about the madness of men, the wars they create and how those touched by it eventually turn to that madness for comfort. As Vonnegut put it, there are no actual characters in the story. Fine, we have Pilgrim and his comrades Roland Weary, Paul Lazzaro and poor Edgar Derby; a school teacher who is eventually executed for stealing a teapot. There’s also porn-actress Montana Wildhack and the reclusive science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout.

But, there are no characters. Because the only star of the show should be the EVENT; whose gaping absence (in this case) could also be a presence of such. Because a writer’s only chance of getting near such an event is to talk around it, through populating it. Which is why we have Billy Pilgrim and characters who are not actually meant to be there, but have to be, because (ironically) their presence provides the closest, most comfortable focal point for our eyes to rest on. Any closer, and it might all be a bit too much.

“Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.
    So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.
People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.
I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

This one’s a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”

Time is a flexible thing in Vonnegut’s world; one can be dying one minute and be born the next, only to die again. Vonnegut shows us the big events in life. The ones that jar our conscience and even our sanity. But what about the little bombs that are peppered along the path of life? Every laughable, silly character in this book is a ticking bomb in their own right who trigger other bombs. It is how all these events play out that make ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ such an enjoyable and deeply resonant book.

If you’re looking for a read that explores BIG themes, like birth, sex, death, war, humanity and the meaning of life then don’t bother reading this. You will be disappointed. However, if you are looking for a short, concise novella who right from the start understands the futility of such an undertaking and humbly admits as much, then this is for you. And who knows? I mean, you might actually arrive at a better understanding of those big themes through this scrawny little book. Like I did. And start to pay a little more attention to bird-song. Especially ones that go ‘Poo-tee-weet?’

Because when put into perspective, birdsong makes more sense than the bloodlust of humanity. Or so it goes.

For other great Vonnegut books check out my reviews of ‘2BR02B’ and ‘Cat’s Cradle’.

View all my reviews

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