Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
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's review
Jan 21, 08

bookshelves: sci-fi, time-travel, 2008, history, not-worth-it
Read in January, 2008

Contains spoilers
Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man called Billy Pilgrim who time-travels frequently. He was in the Second World War and, captured, was sent to Dresden to work in a malt syrup factory before the city was bombed. He studied optometry and had a nervous breakdown. He married the daughter of a rich optometrist, and became rich as well. He was abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who put him in a zoo with a young porn actress, Montana Wildhack, whom they also abducted. He had a daughter called Barbara and a son called Robert. He was in a plane crash that killed everyone except him and the co-pilot. Rushing to the hospital in frantic worry, his wife Valencia dies in a car accident. He gets to meet his favourite author, an unsuccessful sci-fi writer called Kilgore Trout. "Slaughterhouse-Five" is the name of the building where the American POWs lived in in Dresden.

Because the narration jumps around as frequently as Billy does, you learn everything early on and then simply revisit it all. The fractured narrative is worse than watching ads in a commercial break, or those horrible pop songs where the scenes and costumes change every two seconds - it gives you a headache. It's extremely boring, and hollow, and unsatisfying.

I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, as you know. But I do like time-travel stories. Billy is nothing like Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife. For a start, not even a second seems to pass in "real" time while he is travelling - no one ever notices. It seems less like time-travelling than like reliving the past, present and future of your life, all at once, because it's his consciousness that does the travelling. What isn't clear, at all, is which is the real Billy? He moves so much, you have to wonder how he doesn't become completely dislodged from his own corporeal self and go mad.

The time-travelling predates the abduction-by-aliens, but the aliens themselves see the past, present and future simultaneously, and teach Billy their philosophy of not really caring about anything, since nothing can be changed etc. etc. Fatalism.

I think I hated this book, but not quite. Hate is a strong emotion and I don't think it brought that out in me. It wasn't even frustrating, nor even particularly confusing, though the repetition of the Tralfamadorian expression "so it goes" was so irritating I saw red a few times. The bits about the 100 American POWs being welcomed by the British POWs in a German prison camp was delightful, though boldly stereotyped, and I loved the excerpts from the work on American soldiers and prisoners-of-war by the American-turned-Nazi, forget his name, something Campbell. A lot of it - and it's a small, short book - could easily be skipped. The temptation was very strong.

In short, it's a very "postmodern" story, and like all things postmodern, it's impractical, disjointed, a bit wanky, tries too hard, is extremely out-dated and, at the end of the day, rather useless. Vonnegut is also very heavy-handed and bangs you on the head with his messages. It doesn't really inspire me to read more of Vonnegut's work. I guess he's a love-him-or-hate-him kind of story-teller.
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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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Christa I think your review is boring, hollow and unsatisfying. Your review in and of itself shows very little in terms of higher thinking.

Hoyon Kim I admit that Slaughter House-Five's story tells what is going to happen next and repeats the same thing again and again, but I found this attempt interesting and fresh. Also the part that Billy doesn't really do anything to change the fate, sounded cool, since it wasn't like a typical time traveling story. I guess it's just a personal taste.

Layla I agree with Hoyon, it's all about personal taste and I agree with you that the novel was hollow. I would have preferred more depth, and would have enjoyed feeling sympathy for all the deaths, but I didn't and perhaps that's what Vonnegut was going for. I think he wanted people to see another side to death than the constant mourning stages, but I guess you can't always satisfy everyone.

I think he did a good job for making people see the way he does,even if we prefer not to.
Don't worry, I also didn't enjoy this book.

Dmitry The book is so confusing, that is why i guess i didnt like it. Know im thinking if i woud read it again it will be better.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) It could possibly be better on a second reading, knowing what to expect, but I found that re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness didn't improve it for me either.

message 6: by Aerin (new)

Aerin I guess he's a love-him-or-hate-him kind of story-teller.

That must be true. I was very deeply affected by this book and consider it a favorite, but I can't really say I disagree with your review, because your criticisms do make sense. I think approaching it as a parable, rather than a time-travel story, might make it more palatable (to me, saying Slaughterhouse-five is a time-travel story is like saying Twilight is a horror story just because it has vampires; if you go into either book with those expectations, you're going to be disappointed). I guess it's just odd to me that someone could read this book and miss everything I found so moving about it. But to each their own.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) I can completely see the uselessness of reading this as a time travel book, Aerin, but sadly that wouldn't have helped much for me. I didn't like Vonnegut's writing style at all and that is just the way it goes.

James Shannon,

The Tralfamadorians fix time so nobody misses him on earth. That's why he can jump back and forth all the time. It says so somewhere in the book.

Notice also, that Montana Wildhack doesn't experience this time travel. She really is kidnapped and actually is deemed missing on earth.

Jordy Williams Arguing the mechanics of time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five is an absolutely pointless venture.

The point of the book is to communicate Vonnegut's anti-war message through a story that deals with the horrors and sins of war. The "time travel" is used to communicate how the war, and the impact of it, cannot leave Billy's mind.

There is no reason to believe that Billy is actually traveling in time. Or speaking to aliens. Or doing anything supernatural at all--the character suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his experiences in Dresden.

I can't say anything about the comparison to The Time Traveler's Wife, but I can say that just from reading the Wikipedia article regarding it, I can understand how your tastes would differ from Vonnegut's work. I couldn't disagree more with your thoughts on post-modern work, and I personally find romantic literature to be the epitome of pointless, but even the writing style of the two authors must be in very strong conflict.

I really just wanted to clarify that note about the time travel. And then, like most book lovers, I had to throw in my own two cents.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Jordy, I wasn't comparing this book to The Time Traveler's Wife, they're completely different stories, only mentioning that (at the time) it was one of the only other time travel novels I'd read recently. I was merely comparing the style of time travel, especially for people wondering about the book and what they might expect from it. You can get down from your high horse now.

Billy seemed mostly delusional. Trauma from the war? It doesn't even matter. The point is, I found this story boring and irritating.

message 11: by Eastofoz (new)

Eastofoz Jordy wrote: "I couldn't disagree more with your thoughts on post-modern work, and I personally find romantic literature to be the epitome of pointless, but even the writing style of the two authors must be in very strong conflict."

Jordy just out of curiosity mind you, could you tell me what you've read that's given you that impression of romantic literature? Contemporary or otherwise. I'm always interested in what turns people off a particular genre and why they say things like "the epitome of pointless" especially when it comes to romantic lit :)

Shannon, I've never read this one and it's one of those classics of contemporary lit I've been meaning to get to. Doesn't sound like it was all that great for you but I liked your review and thought you gave some valid reasons for your dislike of the novel. Not everyone likes all the so-called "greats". What's interesting about any kind of literature is that it can be interpreted to mean/symbolize just about anything if you argue it well enough I think :)

message 12: by Jordy (last edited Mar 09, 2010 04:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jordy Williams "In short, it's a very "postmodern" story, and like all things postmodern, it's impractical, disjointed, a bit wanky, tries too hard, is extremely out-dated and, at the end of the day, rather useless."

I love that you defend your review, noting it to be an opinion, but you ended it in this drivel. If I'm on a high horse, Shannon, you're looking at me from eye level. I think Christa summed up your review well.

And I wasn't actually trying to be condescending about The Time Traveler's Wife. I haven't read it. My remarks regarding the nature of time travel in the novel were more directed at James' comments. But, returning to The Time Traveler's Wife, I can deduce that it is written in a fairly standard prose style, mildly descriptive, with the narrator rarely offering humor outside of the actual characters. All of those things are different from Slaughterhouse-Five. I was observing that if you especially enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife, you understandably wouldn't be a fan of Vonnegut's writing, because it's completely the opposite in style.

Eastofoz, in answer to your question, it only took experiencing Austen's Pride and Prejudice to make me never want to read another romance novel. The genre, if I could best describe it from what I've seen/heard from people that enjoy it, is something akin to mental pornography. In the typical romance novel, we know what is going to happen before we pick up the book--the girl gets the guy and they ride off into the sunset. I won't say that I don't like a romance story line in a novel--for instance, I really enjoyed Wuthering Heights--but I also felt that it had a lot more going for it than the romance (And it didn't end so well). There was a class battle, and sins of generations being passed on--the novel asked real questions. I don't often believe that real questions are being asked in romance novels--and if I'm going to read some mental pornography, (Which I do, they're called Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels) I want it with some action, some suspense, and some good old-fashioned vulgarities. I won't say I don't believe in reading for pure entertainment without intellectual enrichment--I do. But romance novels don't hold that kind of entertainment for me.

*I find it important to note that I don't actually consider Dean Koontz or Stephen King's writing to be devoid of intellectual worth. But if I were to compare Stephen King's "The Stand" to something like J.D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey", I know which one I would write a master's thesis on and which one I would take with me on an airplane.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Jordy, it is possible to enjoy more than one writing style. It's a shame that you can't seem to see anything of value in a less wanky writing style. And I honestly don't care that you don't like my dismissive attitude towards post-modernism. It is wanky. I will sum it up in a quick sentence. I am snobby. I'd say anyone who cares about the Arts is a snob, because we have opinions and we have a tendency to think we're right. We exactly alike in that regard.

Ha ha, you really want to tackle P&P as a romance novel? I know a lot of people who would come down heavy on you for that one! As Eastofoz points out, the beauty of the Arts and Humanities is being able to argue for anything, if you can back it up. A great many people contest that P&P is more social commentary than romance novel. I think it's both but there you go. If you don't like romance novels, that's fine. But I wouldn't attempt to analyse a genre you have little to no experience in. P&P doesn't count, it really doesn't.

Jordy Williams Where did I say that it was impossible to like more than one writing style? No where. In fact, I noted that I enjoy both Salinger and King--anyone will tell you that they're completely different writers. Don't assume you know anything about my tastes--it's insulting, and you're not good at it.

It's obvious that a discussion with you about this is impossible--you're too good at grabbing at one small point and yammering about it instead of actually going point by point. That's a good defense mechanism, I hope it serves you well.

Eastofoz, If I was unfair to take P&P as a romance novel, which Shannon so pretentiously needed to say, suggest something that you think well-represents the genre--I'll check it out. I'm currently working on King's "Dreamcatcher", so it will be a bit before I can get to it, but I'll give something new a shot. I'm new to this site, so I'm not sure at the moment if there is a messaging function--if there is, I would much rather move this conversation to that.

Shannon, I'm sure you will feel the need to reply again, but I will not be helping you fuel your ego anymore. We'll have to agree to disagree. Asi es la vida.

message 15: by Trice (last edited Mar 19, 2010 01:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trice My thoughts are swimming between responding to the review and/or the resulting conversation.

I think seeing Vonnegut and/or the Tralfamadorians as cold toward death is to see in them the complete opposite of what they are. There's the combination of seeing the whole of the beauty of an individual life, even after the person has died. And there's the immense grief expressed in such a short, passing line as 'So it goes.' Part of his point here, too, was that some people were seen as the right ones to mourn for, while others, because they were on another side, were not... and yet they were/are all and each human beings, important in their own ways and to their own groups of people. I may be expanding a bit on what he's actually expressing, but my point is that there are lots of layers under his very simple prose.

I'm slowly adding to my experience of Vonnegut, but my impression so far is that he makes huge points through great understatement. And sometimes there is sadness buried under humor. And sometimes he's just laughing at the true ridiculousness of human beings, thinking they're so logical and far seeing when most are doing something that is foolish, blind, and heartless.

I find I slip into a different frame of mind when reading Vonnegut because his writing is so very different from most prose. Half the time I'm just laughing at his style - I feel like that different style is part of his humor too, and that I see him more clearly - the author present within his work - because of it.

Oh, and Vonnegut does not seem to really be about 'story.' He uses it as a tool of expression, but not as a goal or end in itself. So I feel like I'm usually trying to see the reason for the story and not follow it in any linear way. I think the key to understanding this particular book, as well as a hint to his other writings, is Billy's conversation about the Tralfamadorian book.

And, hey, I would totally take Franny and Zooey on a plane trip. Who says philosophical wanderings aren't entertaining. :)

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Trice, I honestly wish I could have had your experience reading this, rather than be irritated and bored - thanks for sharing, it was great reading your thoughts; I think you articulated well why this book is so popular :)

Kevin Ripper It seems like you're complaining about the parts of the book that were the central theme of it all; Billy's lack of control over his life and the like. Which, you know, makes you pretty shallow imo.

Isobel Shannon, I love your synopsis of this book. I needed that as I only got past the first few pages before deciding I really didn't like it. I love science ficton esp PFK. I sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal, however, I think the 'cool' factor comes into it too much. As you said its too heavy handed and pretentious.

message 19: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam I stopped reading when you allude to The Time Traveler's Wife. I read the book too, and I enjoyed it. But the two books are polar opposites. :P

James Jordy wrote: "Arguing the mechanics of time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five is an absolutely pointless venture.

Jordy, I agree with you. It is an anti-war novel and of course it is very much about Billy Pilgrim's (and in-turn, Vonnegut's) post-traumatic stress (much like Gulf War Syndrome).

I was only explaining to the reviewer why there was no time loss in the time-travel elements (even though, as we both say, it's not about time-travel at all).

By the way, I have read this novel twice and it's my favourite novel too. It actually was better the second time around too.

Michaela your criticisms make sense but i do disagree with you. if you were looking for a book mainly about time travel then not this one. time travel merely adds to the plot. i can see why it seems hollow how after each death it says "so it goes" but i found lots of depth in it. i think it's just about a sorry guy who experienced war and the worst side of human beings and who either did see aliens or who was so blinded by war that he went wacko and tried to cope with his life by making up the 4th dimension to explain that death isn't really the end. "By uttering “So it goes” after each death, the narrator, like Billy, does not diminish the gravity of death but rather lends an equalizing dignity to all death, no matter how random or ironic, how immediate or removed."

James I would not recommend it to someone looking for a book about time travel as it's not even about time travel. It's not even clear what he experiences is any form of time travel either.

I do agree though Michaela. That's why I love this novel so much, as you can read all sorts into it.

As you say, he maybe making up the 4th dimension. He may of course have experienced it too. For me, the humour hits home too. It's absurd yet dark. I've always liked black humour.

It's one of my favourite novels of all time so I am of course biased.

message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

I saw the strange time traveling part as a way to explain how war and life in general can leave you disordered and confused. Almost like there is no chronological order in his lifetime, it has been disturbed to the point where we don't know where his lonely childhood starts and where his unfulfilled marriage ends and if the war was the main reason for making him lose his identify. Is there such thing as order when you have seen such horror?

Abbyk I keep trying with Kurt V and I think he's annoying and wildly over-rated.

Kamen Boev I totally agree with Michaela.
Vonnegut gives away one by one all the clues on how exactly Billy built his false reality. All the elements of his abduction/time travel are part of Kilgore Trout stories he have read.

message 26: by Red (new) - rated it 3 stars

Red Heaven I don't think Vonnegut bangs us over the head with his messages... I think he is actually too subtle and they are obscured too much by the chaos and jumping from scene to scene.

message 27: by Dara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dara Clearly you are one of those people who base your opinion of the novel on how you liked the story, ether than the meaning behind it. Unfortunate. It's an amazing work.

message 28: by AJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

AJ Who knew that this man, who wrote such amazing works that so many people either love or hate and that have sparked such heated debates, would have a daughter who would grow up to produce and provide the voice for Mikayla Van Buren and others in The Most Popular Girls in School?

message 29: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John I respect your opinion, but i think you may have been a little careless in your interpretation of the novel. I think the novel can be taken at face value as far as the tralfamadorians and the time traveling goes and still be enjoyable. But, what i found really interesting is the possibility that billy pilgrim has invented these things as a way to cope with the traumatic experiences he has had in life, and there are certain clues that support that theory, for instance the re-appearance of the serenity prayer, first in his optometry office, then around the neck of montana wildhack, and the similarity of the tralfamadorians to the characters in a trout novel.

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