Kurt Vonnegut, 1969
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
A movie producer once told Kurt Vonnegut that, if he was planning to write an anti-war book, he might as well write an anti-glacier book—for all the good it would do. Wars are inevitable, "about as easy to stop as glaciers," was the point. Vonnegut agreed.
Why then did Vonnegut go on to publish a novel—about the firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II? As he later explained, Slaughterhouse-Five was a book he had to write: he himself had been present in Dresden at the very time of its destruction. The rest, of course, is history—Vonnegut's book has become one of the world's great anti-war novels.
The story, much of it very funny, as only Vonnegut can be, centers on Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from Ilium, NY. "Tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola," Billy is drafted, captured by the Germans, and taken to Dresden, where he survives the city's destruction. After the war, Billy returns to Ilium to marry and start a family. An ordinary life, he is an ordinary man, except for one thing—Billy time travels, in and out of his own past and future.
He also travels in space—to the planet of Trafalmadore, where he learns that linear time is an illusion. All things happen simultaneously, and every moment lasts forever—the future already exists, it simply waits for us to visit.
So if events are predetermined, as Billy says to the Trafalmadorians, "I suppose the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid, too." "Of course," comes the response of the little green people (who are shaped like bathroom plungers). "And so it goes"—the narrator's constant refrain. In other words, what can you do?
But wait. If preventing war is futile, what makes Slaughterhouse-Five an anti-war book?
The answer, perhaps, hinges on whether we are to accept Billy's time travel as truth...or delusion, the only way a traumatized soldier can cope with the horror of war. And there is much in the book to suggest that human cruelty and indifference to suffering are not inevitable: they can be balanced by kindness and goodness.
All of this is fodder for rich book discussions. Slaughterhouse-Five is not only a funny, potent read, it also poses profound questions about the human capacity for good and evil. This is a must read for everyone at some point in life, a beloved classic for good reason.
See our Reading Guide for Slaughterhouse-Five.
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