Benji's Reviews > Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade

Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut
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Short, fast, to the point, equally poignant and diverting. A book that doesn't take itself too seriously, I like the guy's sincerity. He seems to me to do the opposite of the post-modern, everything is ironic and we're going to write the most ironic books there are. No, Vonnegut in this one doesn't do that. He describes hard situations and you can taste his acrid feelings without going the route of irony. ''So it goes.'' ? Well, that's at least him taking a definite position and putting forth his feelings without occluding them unnecessarily. And if you read his book, it's an unpopular position for him to have taken during the late 60s, considering the circles he ran with--it's not pro-war, it's not anti-war, it's more, you're crazy to try and stop it.

But, wow. I read this in one morning and part of the night before. It's relentlessly interesting, there's humor but a lot more than just humor. I enjoy the places when he inserts himself. 'that was me, the author of this book, i said that'.

If there is any irony, I'd say it's here: while we can all agree the main character is crazy, he's not more crazy than any other individual in the book. Both the war premise and this one requires a certain willingness to suspend belief. But is that more cynicism or irony? And what's the difference?

One part particularly, when he's time traveling, and he doesn't realize that he's no longer in the war, and they ask him where to take him and he says Salughterhouse Five. It's those -type observations of the human condition that make the characters so memorable and meaningful to read.

This is one that I had prejudice about for most of my life, and the title revolted me enough to not want to pick it up, even before I was a vegetarian. Now I'd like to get my hands on Player Piano.

THE TIME 100 review

Vonnegut is still more cult favorite than literary lion (and he probably prefers it that way), but he deserves full canonical marks for this kaleidoscopic koan of a novel about Billy Pilgrim, a man who has "become unstuck in time." Pilgrim ricochets helplessly from decade to decade, living the episodes of his life in no particular sequence, not excluding his own death, his capture by aliens called Tralfamadorians, and his traumatic service in World War II, when he lives through the firebombing of Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five is a cynical novel, but beneath the bitter, grim-jawed humor is a desperate, painfully honest attempt to confront the monstrous crimes of the 20th century.

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The original review:
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, OR THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 186 pages. Delacorte. $5.95.

Rabbits, we are told, have mercifully been provided with short memories because they are so constantly prey to the threat of being killed. They would go mad with fear and despair if they could remember the past. Men seldom realize it, Kurt Vonnegut suggests in his latest novel, but they have more in common with rabbits than they like to think. Except that men forget on purpose, and are a prey to one another.

The occasion for these and other reflections is an agonizing, funny, profoundly rueful attempt by Vonnegut to handle in fable form his own memories of the strategically unnecessary Allied air raid on Dresden that killed 135,000 people. The book's narrator, like Vonnegut, lived through the raid as a prisoner of war in an underground slaughterhouse. Like Vonnegut, too, he has spent more than 20 years trying to mark out the limits of its metaphoric meaning in a book.

Everyman Figure. The task is beyond him. Eventually he presents his publisher with the jumbled chronicle of another American prisoner who also survived the raid, as well as some of the horrors of peace and prosperity. Too archly named Billy Pilgrim, the second survivor is hardly a real character—"there are almost no characters in this book," Vonnegut says, "because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces." But he does very well as something between a consumer-age Candide and a Vonnegut Everyman figure.

Billy lives through the war merely because he happens not to die in it, then becomes a husband and a prosperous optometrist for equally random reasons. He acquires a Reagan-stickered Cadillac and a son named Robert, who graduates from failure as a high school alcoholic to "the famous Green Berets" and becomes a fine young man, fighting in Viet Nam. The only trouble is that Billy sometimes just can't keep from bursting into tears.

Mountain Time. He visits the planet Tralfamadore (which Vonnegut invented several books ago) in a flying saucer, and learns from little green men there that time is not a river, as earthlings think, but an unmoving phenomenon like a mountain range, continually visible to the Tralfamadorians from one end to the other. Since he has become unstuck in time, like the flying-saucer people, Billy, too, experiences many times over the events of his life, repeatedly returning to recollections of Dresden, and the great fire that followed. No one of these occurrences seems more unusual to Billy than any of the others. As the narrator says resignedly, repeatedly, "So it goes."

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