Book Review: “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (podcast)


Post-traumatic stress, time-twisting alien abductions, mid-life crisis meltdowns, and a meta-story on life.

There are a few plot threads in this book, but they all weave around the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. The stories converge on Pilgrim from various times in his life. Having been abducted by aliens, the protagonist jaunts back and forth through various experiences of his life in a non-linear fashion. This might seem jarring, but Vonnegut’s straight-forward writing style makes the whole experience very manageable—no slogging through the muck here.

From a science fiction perspective, the book has some neat passages about time travel, the fourth dimension and how life would be if time was perceived as a nonlinear experience. The result, in Vonnegut’s opinion, is a sort of melancholy yet content, fatalistic attitude.

Contrasting Pilgrim’s time traveling adventure is the ever-present sense of claustrophobia. The protagonist is captured during World War II (as the actual author was in real life) and loses control of his mobility as a prisoner of war. He is also held in an exhibit at a “zoo” on a faraway planet, where he can be gawked at by the local alien population. In other scenes, while convalescing, he is bed-bound at a hospital. At times, Pilgrim expresses feeling trapped in his career as an optometrist and his marriage. Even as a widow, his daughter is constantly challenging his freedom. The time-travel experiences seem to be the only thing that transport Pilgrim out of these feelings, and give him a broader perspective.

The aliens (Tralfamadorians) have a completely different perspective on time. They know all the horrible parts of life and all the good parts at once. They can cope with the bad by focusing on the good. Many parallels can be drawn between this and dealing with combat trauma.

The jumping around of the plot, feels like flashbacks and sometimes there are flashbacks. However, there is also time-travel. The disjointed narrative seems to emulate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which the character is experiencing and the reader is brought into (due to the structure of the book). Stories within stories, within stories hopping back and forth over Pilgrim’s timeline.

Yet, there is a cohesive story underlying all the shifts in time and space. The framework of a life. And, maybe that’s what life is. A series of disjointed events that might not make sense individually, but when put together form an arc. When focus is pulled back and perspective is given, the entire story can be realized.

While reading this book, it is hard not to think about how the author might have felt, surviving a horrific bombing in WWII as a POW “trapped” underground in a slaughter house. A situation Vonnegut was also not in control of, yet one that was deemed to be his own. Is this book trying to make sense of that experience—or perhaps the experience of all people caught in war?

There is much made of this being an anti-war book, and certainly there is that aspect within the pages. Yet, the storyline, to me, seemed to be more along the lines of pointing out that in life, sometimes things are just really really really messed up. Sometimes things are bad and the reasons are not always so simple and straightforward or make a lot sense. Lines blur. Lives are lost. Vonnegut doesn’t seem to say we should not care about this. Instead, he seems to say that we must recognize these difficulties and give them there due. Reflect on them. Perhaps try to do better. Focus on the good.

As others have noted, this story is told in Vonnegut’s characteristic style of simple declarative sentences. A breeze to read. And yet his writing is a perfect compliment to this non-linear device of story-telling. Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, and you will too as you read this thoughtful tale of dark reflective humor.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes, YouTube or our website (