Slaughterhouse-Five ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Billy Pilgrim is the main character in Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war satire, Slaughterhouse-Five. He “comes unstuck in time” and moves all around in his life, from his childhood, to his experiences in World War II, to his wedding night, to a plane crash in Vermont in which he is only one of two survivors, to his time held captive on an alien planet called Tralfamadore millions of light years from earth.
In World War II, Billy Pilgrim is an indifferent warrior. He doesn’t like war and “won’t do anything to protect himself.” He is captured by the Germans (in Germany, no less) and held with a hundred other American soldiers as a prisoner of war. He is present at the horrible firebombing by the Allies (the U.S. and Britain) of the charming German city of Dresden in the closing days of the war. Everybody in Dresden is incinerated, but Billy and the other American POWs survive because they are in a slaughterhouse deep under the earth (“Slaughterhouse-Five”). Everything in Billy’s life happens by chance. He is either very lucky or very unlucky.
After the war Billy becomes an optometrist and manages to be successful in terms of how much money he has. He marries the boss’s unattractive daughter, Valencia Merble, and the two of them eventually have two children: Robert, who is troubled and misguided as a youth but gets himself straightened out and becomes a Green Beret in Vietnam; and Barbara, an authoritative girl who treats Billy in middle-age as if he is helpless and feebleminded. Billy isn’t a very effective or attentive father or husband.
The creatures on Tralfamadore have eyes in their hands. They perceive the world in four dimensions instead of the usual three that earthlings use. This allows them to see all time at once. Maybe this is why Billy Pilgrim moves all around in his life, backward and forward, instead of living a day at a time in progression the way earthlings do. When he is held captive on Tralfamadore, he is treated humanely but held in a sort of zoo where Tralfamadorians look at him all day long. He is “mated” with another captive from earth, a porn actress named Montana Wildhack, and the two of them have a child together.
Slaughterhouse-Five is not a serious novel, even though the pivotal event in the book is the hellish World War II firebombing of Dresden. It is, we are told in the background information, American writer Kurt Vonnegut’s most popular and influential novel. It ranks number 18 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in English of the twentieth century. During the fifty years of its publishing history, it has been banned by certain schools and libraries because of its language and depiction of sex acts, but it seems very mild by today’s standards. It is not a very long novel and is easy to read, despite its nonlinear structure. If you are confused at first by what his going on, just keep reading and it will all become clear. It’s art and it pushes the boundaries, a little bit but not too much.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp