Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut's best known work is part war memoir, part dark comedy, and part science fiction.  None of those genres make the book what it is.  Stellar writing, satire, and a voice like no other are what make this book one of the finest pieces of literature ever to be penned, and Vonnegut one of the finest novelists to put pen to paper.

The books' plot is jangled and fragmented, and follows a quite nonlinear narrative.  The main character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps around from one point in his life to the next, without real pattern or reason.  He has become "unstuck in time".  He's quite fatalistic, resigned to his fate, and simply along for the ride much of the time.  He is so not because of any negativity, but because he's seen his death and he knows why it happens.  There is nothing he can do to prevent it and he knows this.

We follow him as he jumps between life on the planet Tralfamadore (where he was kidnapped by aliens, thus unsticking him in time), to Dresden, Germany during World War II, to his life before the war and after it with his wife and son.  The jumps are at random, but allow him to have a realistic view on his own life and death without becoming pessimistic.

The plot is merely secondary to the reading experience, though.  What shines through is Vonnegut's ability to tell a story.  I think one of the paragraphs that shows that ability the most is how he describes a minor character near the end of the book.  He doesn't write a word about how she looks, but he doesn't need to.  When he writes that she is "a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies," the image in the reader's mind is crystal clear.  He has no need to enhance an image of her using any physical descriptions because she is already fully formed in the reader's mind.  With a single sentence, he accomplishes what most authors need several paragraphs to do.

And this is common throughout the book.  Many times he never really says what is going on directly, but rather talks about how a character relates to it.  And every time, the reader gets a clear vision of what is going on, without actually reading it.

The book has an intimate feel to it, as though Vonnegut is sharing an inside secret with only a single reader.  At several points in the book, he breaks the fourth wall and explains that he was there when a particular thing happened, inviting us to believe the whole as recounted memoir, and not just scattered incidents serving as inspiration for a work of fiction.  It makes it that much more believable, even when he explains that the alien Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions, and have already seen every instant of history, past and future.

It's an interesting look at a wide array of colorful, interesting characters, more a study on human nature and personal interactions than classic story line.  It's a look into behaviors, and into our very souls.  We find ourselves drawn into the story not only for the plot and characters, but the way Vonnegut puts words together. All authors have the same words to use.  Kurt Vonnegut was better than most at arranging them in a pleasing manner.

So it goes.

It's available on Amazon, should you somehow not have it in your collection.

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