23 July 2009

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those iconic American writers who it feels like everything I know has read except me. I recently bought a boat-load of books (well, okay, 11 or 12 of them, which fit in a smallish box delivered from an online bookseller's warehouse in Ontario), including Slaughterhouse-Five. I don't know why I choose that book in particular and I didn't even read a synopsis before buying it. I didn't have any preconceived ideas of what it might be like – except a vague notion that it maybe involved children or young adults – but it still was nothing like I'd imagined. (And not just because it was about soldiers rather than children. The entire thing was somehow askew from whatever non-formed ideas I had.)

Opening paragraph:
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.
I didn't know that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, though I'd some idea about the satire. I did know he had a penchant for "So it goes" and that he'd included the phrase "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt" in at least one of his books. (That, I knew, because it was referenced in a song by, I think but can't remember for certain, Maybe Smith.) After Vonnegut died, I read some tributes people had written and some lists of the best bits (according to whoever) from his books. Having now read Slaughterhouse-Five I do feel a little like I'd have been okay with reading only those lists.

What I said in my one-line review for anobii.com was "This was interesting and sometimes funny, but mostly I feel like I missed the point." Many of the particularly funny bits I'd already read (without context) in those best bits lists. The interesting bits were mostly the references to war – the irreverent tone was refreshing, probably because I'm so used to the pro-war (or pro-America, anyway) rhetoric of so many American war films – and also the ideas put forth by the Trafalmadorians. Those were such curious segments. I suppose because of the banality of both the war/regular life sections and the otherworld alien sections. Even though Billy Pilgrim ends up a fish out of water in those sections, he approaches everything in exactly the same way.

Still, as I said, I'm not sure I got from this book whatever I was supposed to get from it. It's probably partly lazy reading – I stretched out this short book over several weeks – but also because it was so wholly outside of whatever I thought I was getting myself into that I spent more time going "Wait… what?" than I did really paying attention.

Worth the read? I don't know. I thought it was okay, but I'm not as sold on Vonnegut as everything else seems to be.

Kurt Vonnegut was the author of several novels, including Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slapstick. He also published short stories and essays in several collections, including Welcome to the Monkey House and the posthumously published Armageddon in Retrospect. You can read "The Blood of Dresden" here, an essay extracted from Armageddon in Retrospect, on the subject of the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1991.
Finished: 22 July 2009
Rating: 2 of 5 Kilgore Trout novels
This was my 5th book in July and my 27th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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