Martine's Reviews > Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
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Jan 02, 2010

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bookshelves: historical-fiction, modern-fiction, north-american, postmodern, science-fiction
Read in March, 2008

I have to admit to being somewhat baffled by the acclaim Slaughterhouse-5 has received over the years. Sure, the story is interesting. It has a fascinating and mostly successful blend of tragedy and comic relief. And yes, I guess the fractured structure and time-travelling element must have been quite novel and original back in the day. But that doesn't excuse the book's flaws, of which there are a great many in my (seemingly unconventional) opinion. Take, for instance, Vonnegut's endless repetition of the phrase 'So it goes.' Wikipedia informs me it crops up 106 times in the book. It felt like three hundred times to me. About forty pages into the book, I was so fed up with the words 'So it goes' that I felt like hurling the book across the room, something I have not done since trying to read up on French semiotics back in the 1990s. I got used to coming across the words every two pages or so eventually, but I never grew to like them. God, no.

I found some other nits to pick, too. Some of them were small and trivial and frankly rather ridiculous, such as -- wait for it -- the hyphen in the book's title. Seriously, what is that hyphen doing there? There's no need for a hyphen there. Couldn't someone have removed it, like, 437 editions ago? And while I'm at it, couldn't some discerning editor have done something about the monotonous quality of Vonnegut's prose -- about the interminable repetition of short subject-verb-object sentences? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all authors should use Henry James- or Claire Messud-length sentences. Heaven forbid. I'm actually rather fond of minimalism, both in visual art and in writing. But Vonnegut's prose is so sparse and simplistic it's monotonous rather than minimalist, to the point where I frequently found myself wishing for a run-on sentence every now and then, or for an actual in-depth description of something. I hardly ever got either. As a result, there were times when I felt like I was reading a bare-bones outline of a story rather than the story itself. Granted, it was an interesting outline, larded with pleasing ideas and observations, but still, I think the story could have been told in a more effective way. A less annoying way, too.

As for the plot, I liked it. I liked the little vignettes Vonnegut came up with and the colourful characters he created (the British officers being my particular favourites). I liked the fact that you're never quite sure whether Billy is suffering from dementia, brain damage or some kind of delayed post-traumatic stress disorder, or whether there is some actual time-travelling going on. I even liked the jarring switches in perspective, although I think they could have been handled in a slightly more subtle manner. And I liked the book's anti-war message, weak and defeatist though it seemed to be. In short, I liked the book, but it took some doing. I hope I'll be less annoyed by the two other Vonnegut books I have sitting on my shelves, Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 66) (66 new)

Bibliomantic I myself have been wondering why this novel has received so much recognition for I too was unhappy with it. I gave it three out of five stars, but your review makes me want to reduce it to two. I was probably being too kind to it.

I have 'Cat's Cradle' on my reading list as well, and I hope it's better.

Martine I was on my way to a two-star review myself, but once I got used to the infuriating 'So it goes', I sort of enjoyed the story. I liked it just enough for a three-star review.

Let me know what you think of 'Cat's Cradle' when you're done with it -- I'll be curious to hear your opinion on it!

Bibliomantic I would be interested in finding out what you thought of it as well. I will drop you a note when I read it.

Danielle I've read most of Vonnegut's books. Cat's Cradle is by far my favorite, and SL5 is my least favorite, if that helps.

Martine Thanks, Danielle. That does help. I'll give 'Cat's Cradle' a try, then.

Dennis I'm pretty sure that the point of the "so it goes" is to help you realise how people in the depicted situations get used to and infuriated by the death all around them. Notice that the phrase is used when some character in the book dies. Once I realised that Vonnegut was using the phrase to help the reader understand the character's plight and attitude, it became a much deeper book for me.

Add another to the list of Cat's Cradle recommendations, as that is easily Vonnegut at his best for me.

I actually caught your review as I'm re-reading SL5 for posterity's sake, having read it last over 10 years ago, and wanting to compare my taste now to my taste of 10+ years ago. I have to admit that I was more keen on the book as a 20-something than I am now, especially after Palahniuk took the same style and basically went through the full cycle of first impressing me, which led to a short but welcomed fixation on his writing, eventually led into annoyance, and left me at the point where I no longer care to even discuss his latest books...


Christa I'm fairly certain that "so it goes" is a reference to existentialism. If you've ever read Voltaire's "Candide" you will encounter similar phraseology, such as "in the best of all possible worlds."

I read this book in highschool and its tone struck me profoundly. This will always be my nearest and dearest as it's existential message hit closest to home than anything I had read previously. Everything that is is good, in that it exists, no?

I believe you, the original poster, are being extremely nitpicky. You have clearly missed the intended point of the phrase. Vonnegut is famous for his satirical writing, his tongue-in-cheek humor, his belief that everything is equally important and insignificant. He alternates between ascerting our individual importance in the lives of others and our vast inferiority as bits of cosmic stardust.

If you wish to have a more dense read, I recommend 18th century literature. However, Vonnegut is for those who appreciate the importance of each individual word, as of each individual being.

Martine Christa, I'm sure I was being extremely nitpicky. I admitted as much in my review. But no, I do not think I missed the intended point of the phrase 'So it goes.' It was pretty obvious. It just annoyed the hell out of me. I don't like endless repetition of anything. I can't watch films ten times in a row, the way some people can. I roll my eyes when my boyfriend makes the same joke for the twentieth time. I do not like hearing the same point made over and over again without much change in its wording or argument. That's just the kind of person I am. It has nothing to do with whether I 'get it' or not, but rather with my tolerance for repetition, or rather my lack thereof. Vonnegut, I'm sorry to say, sorely tried that tolerance, and it looked for a while as though he might get the better of me. Thankfully, I enjoyed his story enough to stick with it, but as I said in my review, it was a close call. Honestly, the book didn't need 104 repetitions of 'So it goes', no matter how deep the message it was meant to convey.

Issues aside, I can see why many people like Slaughterhouse-5. Honestly, I can; it undeniably has great elements. I just didn't love the book myself, possibly because I was a little older when I first read it than most people seem to be. This seems to be a book that people love when they are young, and then love a little less when they reread it later. If it didn't work that way for you, lucky you. You seem to be in the majority. However, I think I'm entitled to my opinion, unpopular though it seems to be, and to my right to express it here, whether you agree with it or not. :-)

message 9: by Rodrigo (last edited Jan 09, 2010 08:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rodrigo I did not like the book or the story, nor did I enjoy reading it. I also consider it to be exceptionally well written.
It is not a book or story intended to satisfy the reader or to fulfill any expectations. It is what resulted of Vonnegut’s experience in Dresden during WWII and it would not seem he particularly cared if the end product was appreciated or not; it’s a book about his frustration in trying to understand human cruelty and murderous repetition in the name of dubious causes and self interest. It would also seem that having to write the book was much more burdensome for him than it is for us to read it, and that as we tire of the “so it goes” he himself got tired of having to narrate useless or senseless deaths over and over again. In this book, I believe, the merit lies not in the storyline or the technicality of the craft, but in the fact that we are allowed to witness K. Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of senseless pain and death and fail at it. He then tells us, through the Tralfamadorians, that maybe the best we can aspire to is to remember the good and try and forget/ignore the bad.

Sequoyah I got butterflies whenever the phrase "so it goes" was said. That one phrase sums up life.

Christopher Krupansky wow! now this is what i would call pompously contrived review. good job!

message 12: by James (last edited Feb 16, 2010 06:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

James It is a very cleverly written novel, Martine.

The whole style of the novel is entirely deliberate (and I am sure Vonnegut was completely aware the style would annoy people). It's the Tralfamadorian way to write. He wrote in that style deliberately to echo their views on death, as well as their style of writing. That's why you find out about Billy's death early on. Tralfamadorian stories don't have beginnings, middles and ends.

And those short, stark sentences and descriptions? Well I could imagine every single one of his descriptions. They didn't need to be extrapolated. I know exactly how Billy Pilgrim looks and speaks in my mind. It doesn't need Dickensian characterisation (and I do enjoy Dickens as well). Besides, it's also about the story, as you said. Most of his characters died in the book. Some were never even named.

But why the nitpicking on the title? Do you also get annoyed with "Nineteen Eighty-Four" because of the hyphen?

Oh and Wikipedia now says "So it goes" appears 116 times. I am not going to count them all. Sorry!

Having said all this though, I realise this book is a challenging read and not for everyone. For me, I fell in love with it straight away. I re-read it just yesterday (and now love it even more) and I even heard a radio adaptation just a few days back.

I have also read The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle and Mother Night and all are superb as well. I'm currently reading Armageddon in Retrospect. After that, I need to buy some more...

message 13: by Jude (last edited Mar 10, 2010 06:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jude Rodrigo- I love Vonnegut & what you said about this book rings very true for me. I loved him in college and then went through a phase when I thought he might be just gimmicky, and then re-read him in my thirties and began to comprehend what resonates even more now in my sixties: what you describe- a short-hand of grief held at bay with compassion and humor: love on the eternal brink of despair.

That this is not everyone's experience of him is no reflection on V or the reader, and no one knew this better than V.

Amandajustamanda I didn't love this book either. I have a personal disdain for time travel books, but that wasn't it. I, too, wondered why this book is a "classic." I guess it is it's post-modern structure and lack of a traditional plot as you all seem to have said as well.
I didn't mind the "so it goes" because I knew it was there. I liked the one comment about existentialism, it makes total sense.
As far as the HYPHEN goes, it's there because of the translation from German Schlaterhoffunf (did I spell that right?) In the German the two words are one, hence in the translation--the hyphen.

Jared Harmon If you're intolerant to repetition, then you should really stay away from Vonnegut. "And so on" is another of his favorites. I personally love Vonnegut's blending of the deeply meaningful with the absurd and trivial. But I do acknowledge that he's not for everybody.

Merredith Oh that phrase annoyed me too! I even yell at my friends for repeating the same thing over and over again (it is what it is seems to be in vogue right now) I didnt like this book either, so i stopped reading it.

message 17: by (new) - rated it 5 stars

∆ Hahaha, Martine got shut down.

Raina I really don't know if this adds anything to the conversation, but I loved the book for its repetition and time travel because in my opinion, it's a wonderful window into a man's descent into madness, both driven by the minuteness of his life and his inner pain from the war. The whole metaphor of the zoo, and the bleeding of his actual life into the Tralfamadorian delusion - gah, I'm not doing it justice. Trying to write about it, what I want to say gets all jumbled the minute I try to put it down. And I think for that reason, because Vonnegut continually writes metaphor within metaphor, people feel it's contrived and pretentious. Of course, that is why some people like it as well. Criticizing someone's personal feelings that don't affect you whatsoever is a waste of time.

Martine's views aren't invalid at all. I think some books come at certain points in our lives that just hit you on your heart, summarize and validate your world view and make you feel like someone understands. I love Slaughterhouse five, though it isn't fun to read. As I and everyone really, continue to witness the botched conflict in the Middle East and the apartheid of Palestine, Slaughterhouse-Five seems more relevant than ever. That is why this book will always be a classic - war is always pointless and in shades of grey, always.

message 19: by Shanna (new) - added it

Shanna I read cat's cradle afew years ago and thought it was crap..I now don't remember any of the story, which doesn't bode well.

I was debating reading this after reading a reference to it from another book, but I think I'll pass on it.

Andrew Wilson The spareness of Vonnegut's prose only delights me - and the repetition also has a point and in this book it is clearer than some. An American born of German stock joins up to fight the Germans - is captured and put in a Dresden cellar only to be nearly extinguished by his allies, the British. And so it goes! The experience was formative in Vonnegut's Humanism, his writing and his success...

message 21: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam I'd have to agree with Andrew. The book is about Vonnegut's humanistic beliefs, and Slaughterhouse Five was the book that began my humanist journey. There's much more to the book than Wikipedia can tell you.

James BunWat wrote: " I realise this book is a challenging read and not for everyone. Um, perhaps you did not intend that comment sound quit as condescending as it does sound? Just because Martine did not love the bo..."

I certainly did not mean it to sound condescending at all. So there is a misunderstanding there on your part. Of course Martine has a valid point. I never said she didn't. I was just explaining why I like the novel as well as why some of the novel was written the way it was. I certainly did not mean to sound condescending.

Morechexlessmix "So it goes..." is essential to the story, and Vonnegut purposely repeats the phrase so as to emphasize how the horrors of war can desensitize a man to death. Notice that the phrase always follows an observation made regarding death.

Jamieson Rhyne I personally disagree with your criticisms although I appreciate your well thought-out feedback.

To me, some of the things that annoyed you, I thought were artfully done to get a reaction from the reader. For example, the phrase was mentioned after every reference of a death. So roughly 106 references to death were made. I think those deaths would've been easily overlooked and perhaps not as dwelt upon if they weren't followed with the repetitive 'so it goes'.

Also, the monotonous tone (in addition to the 'so it goes' phrase) to me, reflected the state of mind he was in, that Billy had become truly fatalistic, and perhaps the Author was too.

Regards to the "-" in the title, I assumed that perhaps it was because that was how it was written down (pre translation) on the slaughterhouse where he worked, but I don't know, just guessing.

As for other people's comments, it's obvious that you understood this book very well, and just because you have a differing opinion doesn't mean you don't know what you're talking about.

Thank you very much for taking the time to write this review.

Michaela I think so it goes was meant to be 'annoying' or rather stick out in people's mind. it was supposed to show or force the reader to see the sheer magnitude and horror of war (so it goes only appeared after someone died). and well obviously tons of people died in the war.

Jennifer-Crystal Johnson Try reading The Sirens of Titan - that one was my favorite =).

James I read The Sirens of Titan before Slaughterhouse-5 and thoroughly enjoyed it too. I therefore got used to his style before reading this.

Upon reading Slaughterhouse-5, I completely got blown away. It's got a lot of depth in those stark, short phrases. Vonnegut never really liked commas by the way.

I read Breakfast of Champions recently and I was actually a bit underwhelmed. It was still a great read though. I think Vonnegut was pretty accurate with rating his own work.

James Martine, why should his prose be edited? That's a silly notion. It wouldn't be a Vonnegut novel if an Editor changed it significantly.

How would you like it if your novel with Dickensian style writing was edited down into a Vonnegut style? You'd hate it. It wouldn't be your work.

Jennifer-Crystal Johnson I agree with James on that one... if every writer followed the same style then why would we read any of them? It's the uniqueness that makes it enjoyable. It took me a little bit to get used to Vonnegut's style, but I love everything I've read so far.

It can also be said that writers' styles are like genres of music - not everyone has to like the same thing, and not everything is for everyone. A lot of people I know can't read Poppy Z. Brite because of all the wrongness and violence and gore and homosexuality in the books. Being the twisted and imaginative person I am, I love it because I love horror and violence in things I read and watch because you have to tap into whole new ways of describing things to make the reader appreciate it for what it is - writing and descriptions and the ability to put images in someone's mind through words.

End rant. Sorry =).

James Not all of his work is in the same style either. Yes he usually has a dark humour element to his work but if you compare The Sirens of Titan to Breakfast of Champions, you'll see a lot of style differences.

Speaking of Editors: I've always been curious how much editing and Editor does. I'd find it difficult to use an Editor if I was an author, personally. Whenever I have written any prose, I sometimes make small changes but most of the time I leave everything in. Even moreso with my poetry.

Vonnegut didn't seem the sort of guy who'd have appreciated a lot of editing.

Jennifer-Crystal Johnson The job of editor is to correct technicalities, make suggestions, and maintain the author's voice no matter what.... if the author is accepted for publication, then chances are the author's voice is already good and interesting. An editor isn't supposed to make a whole ton of changes just like that.

I used to never edit or revise my poetry... but I do a lot now, if I feel it's needed.... otherwise, I don't. And working on others' work is a delicate thing... I do a lot of that for Phati'tude as well as Broken Publications and it's a complete balancing act. If Vonnegut did have an editor, then whoever it was knew exactly that it's a collaborative effort lol.

James I had an online friend of mine edit one of my short stories once. He didn't do a bad job but he removed my final line which I felt was the most important line in the whole story! So I put it back in.

I guess if other's feel it should be removed though then I'd consider removing it permanently. However, that story is mostly Juvinilia. I still like it but I have much better and stronger ideas now.

I just wish I had the writing skills!

I think with Poetry, it's harder to edit. In the case of my poetry, anyhow. I have an odd and abstract style and most of what I write only I know what it means; so an editor would find it difficult to do much with. Plus I feel that poetry can often be more personal than prose. Thus making it more difficult to edit.

Jennifer-Crystal Johnson I think that certain people would "get it" and certain others wouldn't... but the beauty of it is that everyone has the ability to take something from the written work of others =). Perception is reality, right?

I've read and written some pretty ambiguous poetry... even entire stories with metaphoric meanings.... you either get it or you don't, but if you enjoy reading it (and writing it) then that's what matters lol.

And as far as writing "skill" goes... IMHO I feel that if you love doing it, then just do it... everyone's first drafts suck. lol

Pick up a copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It's an excellent book on writing and really puts things in perspective, even if you just write as a hobby =).

Gonzo I like this book a lot. I also talk in my sleep. 'So it goes' has now made an appearance.

Howard I think the hyphen in the title is meant as an homage to Catch-22. Noun-hyphen-number in each case.

Dianna I listened to the book on dvd. I think there are some book best consumed in this manner :)

message 37: by Bukk (new) - rated it 1 star

Bukk Your middle paragraph is a spot on observation. I felt the same way.

Roland Well, Martine, if you got "fed up" with "So it goes." I guess Vonnegut got his point across rather well, didn't he? (You did notice when «So it goes.» appears, didn't you?

message 39: by Ben (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ben Couldn't agree more with this review. I found the writing style mundane and every page was a wall of text. Description after description, hardly any conversation, nothing to paint vivid pictures in our heads unlike my favourites Lolita and Fahrenheit 451 which are so incredibly well written and enjoyable to read and reread poetic passages over and over.

Tanner Muse While you were picking out the tiny "flaws" in SH5, you must have overlooked Vonnegut's brilliant metaphors and artful language. I'm not sure why you would mention the missing hyphen in the novel's title... If you read for the insignificant, black and white surface of books, Vonnegut is not for you.

message 41: by Bukk (new) - rated it 1 star

Bukk The flaws in SH5 aren't exactly tiny, the metaphors aren't brilliant, and there's nothing artful about the language. It was the worst written book I read last year.

Jasper To Martine: One the topic of the many "So it goes", from a review on "", you might find this interesting:
There is a sense of an embittered humor with the Tralfamadorian phrase, "So it goes," which is repeated over 100 times in the novel. John May says that Vonnegut's purpose in repeating the phrase after each statement of death is to build its meaning with each incremental refrain (Contemporary Literary Criticism 8: 530). At first, the saying can be looked upon as funny in an ironic way. However, as one reads further, the phrase becomes irritating and irreverent. The reader cannot fathom so many deaths meaning so little. According t o Wayne McGinnis, it is most likely Vonnegut's intent to cause such feelings from the reader (Contemporary Literary Criticism 5: 468). This punctuating phrase forces the reader to look at the novel's deaths one after the other.

message 43: by Amy (new) - added it

Amy ^ Jasper, this is interesting. See, I'm about a third into this book, and am just now finding the "So it goes"-es to be annoying. Hmmmm. Thanks for the perspective on this!

Roland Whenever and wherever somebody dies, there will be one party to mourn them and one party to say "This death was the logical consequence of xyz.". For the latter attitude, KV aptly chooses the rather callous and obviously ironic "So it goes." Thus, he positions himself amongst the caring. No death deserves "So it goes." Therein lies the message to all the Bin-Ladins and Rumsfelds and what have you of this world. There are those of us who feel that the proverb "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs." is - to put it very, very simply - NOT NICE, no matter how true it may be. The term for this, our lot, is, I believe, "bleeding hearts". To this day I have failed to arrive at an understanding of what is wrong with a bleeding heart. (Keeps it beating for one thing.)

message 45: by Kit (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kit Want to out yourself as a pretentious hipster? Just claim a person doesn't "get" one of the infinitely deep aspects of your favorite author's irritating stylistic choices! Mr. V is O.G. on this technique, so I am sure every one of the reviewers foaming at the mouth with disapproval for your opinion also finds condescending, repetitious drivel like Fight Club the height of literature, too. Keep expressing yourself. You know you "get it."

message 46: by Kit (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kit I'm sure the endlessly repetitious "so it goes" tops the charts of most popular hipster tattoos along with infinity symbols, "breathe" (both misspelled and not, and sparrows. Quotable does not always mean meaningful or deep.

message 47: by Andy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Andy "So it goes" is the most straightforward manifestation of the post-traumatic-stress lens that the entire book is told through. The narration leaves you with a sense of numbness as every time someone/something dies, you're met with a severe lack of reaction. "So it goes." The lack of flowery, luxurious language and sentence structure you mention as well as the temporal instability and jumpiness are representations of the same. If you came out of the book not feeling much for the characters or the events, you read it right - Vonnegut was creating a narrative to be reaction to rather than to be reacted within.

message 48: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily Personally, I agree with everything you've said - while I see the reason for the repetition (and don't find it quite as tedious as some), I don't feel it was as well executed in this case as some of Vonnegut's other novels or even those by other authors. What I am most intrigued by, however, is the large tendency by users to dismiss someone's opinion - and this is the key word - as being shallow or 'missing the point' o the novel. It's something that also arises in many of the literature classes I teach, but never gets any less baffling for me. The whole point of literature, like art, is that it creates different responses in the mind of each reader. Those who fail to understand this are the ones who are really missing the point.

message 49: by Aidan (new)

Aidan Falk @Kit I get you like to pretend that you are better than these phony "hipsters" but what you are stating with your inane comment is that your mind is unfortunately too small to comprehend that other people might not take the same meaning from the same piece of literature as yourself. So in conclusion you don’t get it.

Anastassia Yes, you just don't get it. Some literature you have to grow into... It really is a masterpiece.

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