The Modern Library ranked our next book club selection, Slaughterhouse Five, as the 18th greatest English language novel of the 20th century. As I contemplate the novel ahead of Monday’s book club, the big questions that arise are: Does it deserve it’s ranking? Does Vonnegut manage to express the absurdity of war? And, should you read it? Stay with me and I’ll return to those questions at the end of this review.
Vonnegut is very much present in this book. He was living in a Dresden slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war at the time of the allied bombing. The book begins with a similar setting, and the reader doesn’t know if the story is fact or fiction, as the opening scene is not labelled as an introduction or prologue, but simply Chapter One. This uncertainty sets the tone for the whole book. We soon meet Billy Pilgrim, a former soldier and POW, later optometrist, and sometime resident of the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. Billy has become unstuck in time. Reflecting Billy’s predicament, Vonnegut’s narrative is non-linear, jumping back and forth in time and location, leading toward the inevitable bombing at the end.
There are many incredible things about this book, not least the language. Vonnegut succinctly describes hardship by saying: ‘We ate snow’. The fatalistic acceptance of death is achieved by the recurring use (106 times) of the phrase ‘and so it goes’ whenever anything dies, be it man, animal or plant. The expert writing enables the reader to accept the time travel and visits to outer space, but at the same time allows for the ambiguity of not knowing if this is really happening to Billy or if he is, in fact, mad. I found it fascinating that the structure resembles the way one might remember one’s own life or a dream, in vignettes, not necessarily in order. The structure makes the reader feel as if he or she has experienced the whole story simultaneously, just like the books on Tralfamadore, which have no beginning, middle or end all, but are experienced all at once.
So now it’s time to answer those questions. Does this book deserve to be lauded as the 18th greatest book of all time? Yes, indeed it does. Does Vonnegut get across the absurdity of war? Yes, absolutely. Should you read this book? Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!! If you want to come along to our book club on 28th May to discuss it with us then please sign up here, or indeed if you want to set up your own book club or link an existing one to read in tandem with ours, then please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.