Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.
This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.
Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.
I’ve deliberately kept myself in ignorance whilst reading the book and whilst writing this review as to Vonnegut’s own history, lest that shatter the impression I got from the book, for surely that impression and what truth it conveys is of primary importance, while the rest is background. I can leave that background until after this review is posted online.
Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.
The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.
The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.
The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.
Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.