Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse 5, or the Children's Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut

So it goes.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, along with each of the other books that I have read so far this year, there is a recurring theme. The lead character is, or at least could very well be, completely unhinged. If it’s not that they have lost the plot (perhaps some time ago) it is that they are losing it, never had it, are under the influence of drugs or alien forces, or perhaps are just hallucinating the entire thing.

That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, or that Slaughterhouse 5 pulls it off any worse than the other books. In fact, quite the opposite. The lead, Billy Pilgrim, is an optometrist drafted into World War II as a chaplain’s assistant, and pretty much stumbles through it surviving only thanks to some slightly shady characters and his own innate luck (or not, as we find out later in the book). He is then taken as a prisoner of war and witnesses the firebombing of Dresden, which has a profound effect on him. He also becomes ‘unstuck in time’ and thus experiences his life, or re-lives parts of it, in a non-linear order. This also has a profound effect on him. As does his abduction by the Tralfamadorians, an alien race who see and exist in all time simultaneously rather than sequentially like humans.

This might all sound a little far-fetched and too much like sci-fi for some people, but it’s all dealt with in such a pleasantly fatalistic manner by the ever-chipper Billy Pilgrim that you hardly notice the incongruity of the plunger-shaped, time-travelling aliens. The best example of this style is exemplified by the Tralfamadorian phrase, ‘So it goes,’ which is used over a hundred times in the course of the book. N.b. Billy Pilgrim has, to the best of my knowledge, no relation to Scott Pilgrim (the film of which I watched again recently).

It is not a story about aliens and time-travel at all really, but about the concept of free will, ideas of fate and the senselessness of humanity – particularly as regards war. In the first chapter of the book, written from the perspective of Vonnegut himself as narrator of the book, and as an occasional bit-part character throughout, he promises an old war buddy’s wife that we would not glamorize war in any way in writing the book – hence the subtitle of The Children’s Crusade. He certainly succeeds in never glamorizing war, but the way in which he speaks against it is perhaps a little round about. Nevertheless the book (on top of all these other aforementioned traits) is also a very enjoyable, often funny read. Check it out.

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