Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of "Slaughter-House Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.




Kurt Vonnegut based this book at least partly on his own experiences during WWII. In the story, Billy Pilgrim, an optometry student, is drafted into the army. He's not a good soldier and is eventually captured by the Germans. Billy and other American POWs are housed in a former pig slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse Five) in Dresden, German, where they are used as laborers. Billy is present in February, 1945 when the allies bomb Dresden, destroying the city and killing over 130,000 people - an incident which affects Billy deeply.

After the war Billy goes home to Illium, New York, marries his sweetheart Valencia, and has two children. Years later, in 1968, Billy survives a plane crash and Valenica dies from carbon monoxide poisoning as she's rushing to his side in a damaged car.  In 1976 Billy is killed by a kook with a gun because of incidents that occurred during the war.

Sounds like a normal enough life. However, there's something very unusual about Billy. He's  unstuck in time. He moves back and forth, here and there, visiting and re-visiting past and future incidents in his life. Moreover, at one point, Billy is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. He's taken to Tralfamadore, put on display in a zoo, and given an Earthling movie star as a mate.

The Tralfamadorans teach Billy that all times exist simultaneously and death isn't important because people are still alive in other times of their lives. In his older age Billy is determined to share these insights with the world via letters to newspapers, TV, and radio but is viewed as a nut; he also greatly frustrates his daughter who's trying to take care of him.

It's an unusual but easily readable book that (I guess) serves as a sounding board for some of Vonnegut's views about war and death. It certainly gives you something to think about. I recommend it.

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