In a word? Bizarre. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a satirical novel chronicling the outlandish journey of Billy Pilgrim. Shall I illustrate just how bizarre this bizarre novel is? Take a read of its full title:
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.
Yes, that is the actual title. Shortened to Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death and frequently shortened even further to Slaughterhouse-Five, one mightn’t be quite aware of they’re getting themselves into when they first pick up Vonnegut’s highly acclaimed novel. I know I wasn’t. I bought it on the weekend when I had a couple of hours to waste and began reading it without knowing anything about its actual content. I expected a serious book that tackles heavy and confronting issues, as the shortened version of the title might suggest… but I was wrong. I was very, very wrong…
Billy Pilgrim is an American optometrist. He is an ill-prepared soldier in World War II. He is subsequently a prisoner of war. He is married to a fat woman named Valencia. He is abducted by aliens and displayed in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. He reads science fiction books. He wears a toga to keep warm at the prison camp. He survives an aeroplane crash. He survives the bombing of Dresden. And all of this in the present tense because time is just an illusion and every moment exists at every moment. Or so we are told by the Tralfamadorians who, incidentally, find the human capacity to only view the world in three dimensions quite comically sad.
Yes, Kurt Vonnegut is a master of the bizarre, the berserk and the bewildering. But upon finishing Slaughterhouse-Five I was struck by the realisation that although each chapter alone is entirely absurd, the book as a whole is a masterfully designed insight into humanity, time, emotion, love, regret and the mind. Much of the outlandish content is metaphorical or intended specifically to illustrate a particular point and because Vonnegut does so with extraordinary finesse, the final result is a profound and entertaining tale.
My conclusion? Slaughterhouse-Five is an incredible literary cocktail of absurdity, existentialism, humour, insight and depth. It tackles some very heavy issues through very unconventional methods and is a classic novel that is not to be ignored. I highly recommend it.