Three people have recommended this book to me over the years. The last of which lent me their copy and told me to read it and because I had been thinking about reading it for a while, I decided to take her up on her offer. However, before reading I was under the assumption that Kurt Vonnegut’s books were strange. I didn’t know what that meant going in, but I do now.
Billy Pilgrim has a unique condition: he has become unhindered by time. As a result, he travels through time to random points in his life both past and future, but no matter what he sees in his future he is powerless to change his fate. Focusing on the events of his time as a prisoner of war during WWII, the story follows Billy as he experiences the harsh realities of war and the long lasting effects they have on the rest of his life.
I realize that description is brief, but this book is so hard to describe. I now understand why I got very vague descriptions from friends whenever I asked them to tell me what it was about. It’s all over the place without a real plot, in the traditional sense of the word. There isn’t a main antagonist or a traditional hero’s journey. This is, according to the back of the book, “one of the world’s greatest anti-war books.” It shows violence and war as home to horrors and atrocities. No one, even those who survive, can escape unscathed.
Dresden, Germany was known as the Jewel Box and near the end of his time as a POW Billy Pilgrim finds himself in the middle of it. This city was the cultural center of Germany and held no military significance during the end of World War II (as far as I am aware), and yet a great portion of it was completely destroyed by American and British air bombers in what is still debated as an act of unnecessary aggression.
All too often we want to glamorize war and violence. If you don’t believe me, then just look to the movies and books that are the most popular. All the super hero movies are focused around glamorized violence, most of the dystopian books published are equally focused to a degree, and people flock to toy stores to purchase plastic weapons for children to use in play. Vonnegut’s message is that there is nothing fun about war.
From the moment I finished reading it I knew this was a successful book, I just didn’t know how. I still don’t entirely understand why. It would take me a second reading at least (or possibly a third) for me to answer with confidence that I understand Vonnegut’s success. But from my first reading I know that he captured the horrors of violence and war through a variety of stories, all of which were connected in some way by the events that transpired during WWII and put a bad taste in the audience’s mouth. I didn’t see a war fought by heroes; I saw a war fought by a lot of scared people who did whatever they needed to do to stay alive. War doesn’t always create better men; sometimes it brings out the darkest parts of the soul.
Though it succeeded in it’s intended purpose, or at least in the purpose that I gleaned, I’m not especially eager to dive back in for a second reading. It wasn’t for any fault of Vonnegut, but I wasn’t really invested in it. I thought there were too many genres in play that I felt at times that I was reading more than one story, and in a way I was. This may be a case of the right book at the wrong time, in which case I may very well return to it with a fresh perspective and find a great deal more that I overlooked, as is probably the case with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I read it when I was a freshman in high school and couldn’t make heads or tales of it. Lately I’ve felt a tug to return and read it again. One day I imagine a similar feeling will pull me toward Slaughterhouse Five again, at which time I hope to be better prepared for the masterful work that is Kurt Vonnegut.