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  1. #1
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    February Book: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    So what did y'all think?

    It's been probably more than 15 years since I last read this book. For a while, I was on a total Vonegut kick and read as many of his books that I could get my hands on. I loved his sarcastic humor and his curt way with words. While it was a little weird re-reading it after all these years, I was pleasantly reminded why I enjoyed him when I was younger.

  2. #2
    Hip, cool, jiggy wit' it emohawk's Avatar
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    I guess I'll start the ball rolling..

    Slaughterhouse-Five is the fourth Vonnegut novel I've read (Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle) and I think probably makes it as my favourite of his novels. In my opinion it is probably his finest (at least out of these), which I find tends to be the case when the novel is very personal to the author (another example being Silverberg's Dying Inside).

    I knew that it was based on his experiences during the Bombing of Dresden, but I deliberately avoided finding any more about it before reading it. I found the first chapter describing the genesis of Slaughterhouse-Five to be very interesting - particularly as it was included as Chapter One, rather than an introduction. Illustrates how integral to the story events in Vonnegut's life are I guess.

    The jumping around in time didn't bother me at all (anyone who's read a fair amount of SF would be use to that sort of thing) and using the aliens from Tralfamadore as a plot device to achieve this was plausable enough - I just thought they were under utilised considering what a pivitol role they play to the plot. It's like he wanted to have the novel very disjointed and thought of a way to achieve that and then only fleshed it out enough to make it passable. I was expecting them to play a larger role so was a little disappointed when they didn't.

    I had the same problem with Montana Wildhack, the Hollywood actress he gets jiggy with on planet Tralfamadore. She seems to exist simply to sex things up a bit and provide a contrast for his frumpy but loving wife. Once again she seems little more than a plot device - certainly a pretty poorly fleshed out character.

    These were my only two disappointments to an otherwise excellent novel. Billy Pilgrim makes a fine anti-hero and the only fleeting touches on most of the other characters, while traditionally seen as a flaw of novel, worked well in to accentuate what Vonnegut seemed to want to say in the novel rather than weaking it.

    What should be an extremely depressing novel is actually quite enjoyable - despite the subject matter - thanks to Vonnegut's trademark wit and black humour. His use of the phrase "so it goes" whenever death was mentioned was a particularly fine addition. I thought he managed to handle the tragic subject manner with deep humanity and sensitivity without degrading the events or the reader.

    As I've come to expect from Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five was very entertaining and difficult to put down. I am always particularly appreciative of a novel that I can come away from feeling wiser and better educated and when events from it stay with me long after putting it down, as was the case here. It certainly deserves it's place among "great" modern novels, though I can now understand why it often seems more appreciated by people outside the sci-fi field than in.

    To some up my opinion in a nutshell, Slaughterhouse-Five gets two thumbs up and makes my list of "essential" reading.

  3. #3
    Anitaverse Refugee FicusFan's Avatar
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    I think I ended up not voting for a book this month, because I couldn't decide between 2 poor choices (for me anyway).

    I had SH5 at home, as part of a group of classics. I read it and it wasn't bad. I was expecting something stranger like Naked Lunch by William Burroughs.

    It was very short, and a quick read. I can't say that I see much in it though. I am having trouble remembering a lot about it and I just read it in the last 2-3 weeks.

    The best way to describe it seems to be by what it wasn't: memorable, funny (it even lacked black humor), it couldn't decide what story to tell, or who was the narrator, it also wasn't an anti-war book as the cover proclaimed.

    The opening about standing on lots of bone in the soil really made no sense. If you garden, you put bone in the soil - it is not a big deal. The ground/garden doesn't care or know if it is human or animal bone - in fact they are the same and perform the same function. So what is so shocking about soil full of bones ? The other angle is that eventually everyone dies, whether by violence, or natural causes. We will all end up as bone in the soil, and in fact war or no war we are already standing on millenia of human bones from all those who came before. So it seemed to me he was not talking about war, but about life which has its ups and downs, (sometimes really viscious ones).

    I never really made up my mind if he was serious and really thought his aliens were real, or if they served a purpose in his narrator's life. Was he mad or were they keeping him from having to face or deal with something ? The other thought I had was that they were a metaphor for the truth - like the fact that the emperor is naked in the Emperor's New Clothes story, and whenever he spoke the truth his peers treated him like he was mad and talking about aliens, because we all construct these agreed upon social lies to get by and yet we don't like to admit that we are doing it.

    I found the jumping around annoying, and the silly catch phrase seemed to take the place of real writing and thought.

    Can't really think of anything else to say about the book. I am glad I read it, but won't be in any hurry to read any other Vonnegut books.

  4. #4
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    Slaughterhouse Five is most assuredly an anti-war novel. It is a poingnant tale of the senselessness of war. That so many people ended up as mere "bone meal" was to accentuate that fact. Dresden was no garden, it was a vibrant and beautiful city that was completely leveled for no apparant reason, other than as a message to the Germans. There are no heros in this novel and it is clear that Vonnegut sees nothing heroic about war.

    The catch phrase "and so it goes" ties into several aspects of the novel. It demonstrates the cyclical nature of the writing and it allows Vonnegut to continue even after numerous and pointless deaths. Yes, people die and people will always die...but it is how they die that is at issue. I can't think of a single death in the book that was either honorable or reasonable.

    Obviously, the Tralfamadorians are a device to allow Vonnegut to approach his novel about Dresden in a manner that is not linear. But, I really liked the philosophical implications of all moments in time lasting for an eternity. I did not much care for the implications that we are fated to a future we cannot change.

    Another interesting device Vonnegut used was making Pilgrim an optometrist. His goal to correct people's vision of time and, thus, of death, is akin to making a set of corrective lenses. The general he meets in the story who saw Dresden as a coup for the Allied troups will never be able to see the Dresden that Pilgrim saw. Thus, it is the author's way of saying that the way people perceive the world differs, often dramatically. So, he keeps going back to Dresden and focusing on the ways individuals perceived the destruction. All of these moments and perceptions add up to one truth...that the destruction of Dresden in particular and war in general cause senseless death and destruction and nothing will ever stop it from happening. An anti-war novel is aking to an anti-glacier novel.

    In 1969, this novel was reviewed by the N.Y. Times wherein they stated something to the effect of you will either love this novel or hate it and put it with the rest of the Science Fiction. This makes me so mad. Vonnegut himself worked hard to keep from being labled as a SF writer. It's as if one cannot write a book with heavy social commentary using devices like aliens. Or, that SF is nothing more than little boy adventures in space. But, what has always appealed to me about SF is that it allows for exactly what Vonnegut has done: that is, being able to critique human nature and society by placing it in a "foreign" environment, be that an alien or future world. While it is true that I don't think Vonnegut uses the SF elements in a realistic manner, he does use them throughout much of his work.

    All in all, this little book has a mighty big punch.

  5. #5
    Registered User Mugwump's Avatar
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    Slaughterhouse V is one of those books that I feel I should like (probably because of peer pressure) but, despite my best efforts, I cannot.

    Yes – it’s an unashamedly ‘anti-war’ novel (never a bad thing).
    Yes – the subject is tackled in an innovative and imaginative style.
    Yes – Vonnegut is an original and talented writer.

    But despite all this, I cannot escape the feeling there’s something vaguely pretentious about the whole thing. Indeed, I have a strong suspicion that Vonnegut considers himself to be somehow ‘superior’ to the reader. The entire novel appears to be an exercise in I-have-been-through-war-and-you-fools-know-nothing-about-it didacticism.

    It’s almost as if he is taking delight at mocking my ignorance. And I don’t like that at all.

    I also agree with FicusFan about the constant ‘so it goes’ repetitions. After a couple of pages they become incredibly annoying.

    I am just unable to like S5.

  6. #6
    Anitaverse Refugee FicusFan's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Kamakhya
    Slaughterhouse Five is most assuredly an anti-war novel. It is a poingnant tale of the senselessness of war. That so many people ended up as mere "bone meal" was to accentuate that fact. Dresden was no garden, it was a vibrant and beautiful city that was completely leveled for no apparant reason, other than as a message to the Germans. There are no heros in this novel and it is clear that Vonnegut sees nothing heroic about war.
    But thats all irrelevant. When he chose to approach it from the large scale, he lost the ability to make any point about war. Whether we have war or not - cities will fall, and people will die and become bone meal.

    The vibrant living city of Dresden is no more real for me than say Babylon, and there is nothing that KV does in his book to change that.

    What makes war horrible is not death and destruction on a large scale, but the impact of it on individuals. I found the individual, and the intimate to be totally lacking in the book. I thought it was peopled with flat, and wacky characters who wandered around a bit then stopped.

    Originally posted by Kamakhya
    The catch phrase "and so it goes" ties into several aspects of the novel. It demonstrates the cyclical nature of the writing and it allows Vonnegut to continue even after numerous and pointless deaths. Yes, people die and people will always die...but it is how they die that is at issue. I can't think of a single death in the book that was either honorable or reasonable.

    No how they die isn't the issue, at least not on a large scale. That is the same argument that justifies killing in the name of patriotism (Go Pats!). The issue of how they die is only important to their family, their friends, and maybe their neighbors -- but to the rest of the world it is simply another headline, or another statistic. And after everything is said and done and thousands of years pass it doesn't matter - you're just dead, and just so much bone meal - and there is no difference in the bone meal produced from death by old age or from death by violence.

    If KV wants to make how they die important then he has to make a character that is important. Any one of the characters in the book could have been replaced in the next sentance or on the next page and it would have made no emotional impact on the reader, and no difference to the story he was telling.

    Originally posted by Kamakhya
    Obviously, the Tralfamadorians are a device to allow Vonnegut to approach his novel about Dresden in a manner that is not linear. But, I really liked the philosophical implications of all moments in time lasting for an eternity. I did not much care for the implications that we are fated to a future we cannot change.
    I saw the moments in time as just another use of the theoretical physics of time travel and the possibility that every time you make a choice a new time line develops and you and your actions follow similar or different paths - in some you die, and in some you don't. Again it seems to imply that specific circumstances are not that important, because at some point all possibilities will be encountered, and the different permutations keep it going forever.


    Originally posted by Kamakhya

    Another interesting device Vonnegut used was making Pilgrim an optometrist. His goal to correct people's vision of time and, thus, of death, is akin to making a set of corrective lenses. The general he meets in the story who saw Dresden as a coup for the Allied troups will never be able to see the Dresden that Pilgrim saw. Thus, it is the author's way of saying that the way people perceive the world differs, often dramatically. So, he keeps going back to Dresden and focusing on the ways individuals perceived the destruction. All of these moments and perceptions add up to one truth...that the destruction of Dresden in particular and war in general cause senseless death and destruction and nothing will ever stop it from happening. An anti-war novel is aking to an anti-glacier novel.

    I don't even remember who Pilgrim is, or that he is in the story, so I have no thoughts about him or his occupation.



    Originally posted by Kamakhya

    In 1969, this novel was reviewed by the N.Y. Times wherein they stated something to the effect of you will either love this novel or hate it and put it with the rest of the Science Fiction. This makes me so mad. Vonnegut himself worked hard to keep from being labled as a SF writer. It's as if one cannot write a book with heavy social commentary using devices like aliens. Or, that SF is nothing more than little boy adventures in space. But, what has always appealed to me about SF is that it allows for exactly what Vonnegut has done: that is, being able to critique human nature and society by placing it in a "foreign" environment, be that an alien or future world. While it is true that I don't think Vonnegut uses the SF elements in a realistic manner, he does use them throughout.

    All in all, this little book has a mighty big punch.
    Not for me it didn't. It was rather insipid and I can't imagine how it could possibly generate anything so vibrant as love or hate.

  7. #7
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Okay. Finally finished this one. As always, I really like Vonnegut's books. I'm not usually left loving anything in patricular about them, but always like them on the whole. Given that, I'll just jump into some of the discussion.


    Mugwump, I guess I can see a little bit of how you feel you're being mocked, but I don't think this is the case at all. A few years back a cousin of mine heard Vonnegut speak at a local college on the firebombing and his experiences there. He was very humble about the whole thing and wanted to express how terrible the destruction and loss of human life was, all in the name of making an example, but again not necessarily saying that it was somehow totally unnecessary in the circumstances.

    As far as the thin-ness of the characters, I think that that's really part of his intent. The only character we spend any time with, really, is Billy Pilgrim. At one point in the book he even goes so far as to say that there really aren't any characters in this story. And I found that to be a fairly effective device. More time was spent on any given character's death and means of death than was spent on developing them. In ordering something like the firebombing or massive destruction of any type, one isn't concerned with who is being killed, personally. The concern is merely the means of death.

    "So it goes." I think part of the use of this over and over again is meant to drive home the point that people are prepared to accept the death of others fairly readily, especially ones who they don't know personally. So it goes. These things happen. It's a fairly easily delivered mantra as he uses it. I think he really wants the reader to think about death, of individuals and groups. It's easy to just accept the deaths of 135,000 people in Dresden as someone far away both in time and place. I think the incessant "So it goes" places a bit of a challenge to the reader to think about whether that's really acceptable.

    How many times do we hear a death toll on the news and not give it a second thought. "So it goes." Well, it's PEOPLE dying. They're not nameless and faceless, as many of the secondary characters in SHV. I think his message applies just as well today as it did in 1969 or 1945 or any other time. Americans got very upset about 9-11 when their own died, but what about suicide bombings in the middle east, bombings on the Russian metro, exploitation of children in sex brothels in Asia? Most people just write these sorts of things off as something that doesn't apply to their lives.

    But on the other hand, people aren't emotionally equipped to deal with that sort of information day in and day out, so there is a bit of defense in "So it goes." There comes a point when one has to pass things off, at least to some degree, or run the risk of either going crazy or never getting anything done.



    Okay. I have to stop for now. Too tired to keep on. Hopefully this has some sort of consistancy of thought to it. I'm happy with this as a book of the month. Even though not everyone liked it, it is stirring up some talk, which is great.

  8. #8
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    I vaguely remember reading this book some 25 years ago but do possess some unpleasant memories of the movie that I caught late one night while I was in elementary school. An early shot of a woman (who had to have been Montana Wildhack) running around screaming and topless was a seminal instance in my formative years.

    Anyhoo, I did enjoy Slaughter-House Five and did read it as a fairly obvious anti-war novel. And while I found the juxtaposition of the horrors of war with the novel's dark humorous elements to be a very effective means of forcing the reader to re-think society's almost dismissive attitude to the atrocities that happen every day, I do agree that the "So it goes" refrain actually cheapened the message by hammering the point home.

    I find the debate regarding the horrors of war, personal versus big picture, to be an interesting one in that it does reflect what I thought Vonnegut was calling the reader on. As individuals, we are affected by death and loss on a personal level and then, as the tragedy emanates out from that personal sphere its effects begin to lessen. Suffering the loss of a loved one is devastating, the loss of a friend tragic, the loss of a co-worker sad and shocking, the deaths fellow citizens sobering, the deaths of people half-way across the globe unforunate. That's just human nature but does that make it excusable?

    I didn't mind the jumping around and actually enjoyed the shifts in time. The time philosophy of the Tralfamadorians was pretty cool (Does it in any way reflect the Buddhist concept of time? I have no idea but I seem to remember someone explaining it to me in a very similar fashion), the alien zoo less so. Which begs the question: Were the aliens real or was Billy Pilgrim imagining the whole thing? I would lean towards "imagining the whole thing" except for the fact that, presumably, Billy is able to predict his own death. Thoughts?

  9. #9
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    this is one of my favourite books because of lots of points
    it's funny, it's ironic and above all it talks about war in a touching and not weeping way, it's solid about it, solid about the meaninfulness
    Quote Originally Posted by FicusFan View Post
    But thats all irrelevant. When he chose to approach it from the large scale, he lost the ability to make any point about war. Whether we have war or not - cities will fall, and people will die and become bone meal.

    The vibrant living city of Dresden is no more real for me than say Babylon, and there is nothing that KV does in his book to change that.

    What makes war horrible is not death and destruction on a large scale, but the impact of it on individuals. I found the individual, and the intimate to be totally lacking in the book. I thought it was peopled with flat, and wacky characters who wandered around a bit then stopped.
    this post impressed me a lot
    the bombs on Dresden fell pretty far from my birthplace, really far from "my birth year", anyway I can recognize the struck of a bomb in "my" downtown if I want to pay attention
    and the impact on individual... do you really think that an individual is a closed shell? don't you feel the sense of destruction around you even if your apa is safe?

    I love Vonnegut, and this book especially, because he/it is so European, he/it gives a real, unromantic idea of what is the destruction of a city... entwingled with the absurd story of Trafalmadore: it's nice to joke about history if you perceived it fully, it's a releaf

  10. #10
    Registered User spiralguru3d's Avatar
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    I know this thread is old but we are encouraged to stop by and add our thoughts if we read the book later on, so here I am.

    I found Slaughterhouse 5 to be a mildly enjoyable read. I gave it 3.5 / 5 on my 'reading diary review scale'.

    I interpreted the time travel and alien encounters as narrative devices for Billy's flashbacks and psychological trauma, stemming from the war. This even makes sense during the war as he was clearly not as resilient on some level as the other soldiers, barely managing to stay armed let alone dressed for very long after deployment. He never recovers. He stumbles through the war, surviving out of luck, and is scarred forever after.

    Whether the alien abductions and time travel are real or not is as confusing to us as it is for Billy because the authenticity of the narrator is challenged by him being present in the first chapter of the story. Is the narrator real or not? Can he be trusted? Perhaps if we'd met him in a preface or foreword we might have believed everything he later said, but not after he's appeared in the story. Flashbacks. Feeling closed off and 'removed' from everybody else on Earth. A fantasy relationship with a beautiful woman on an alien planet taking the place of his dreary void of a marriage. All post-traumatic stress, and don't believe what the narrator says, he's just a character in the story too.

    I found the writing to be rich with metaphor and clever insight. This did embellish the experience of SH5 for me. I was often stopped in my tracks by an insightful analogy, some basic human truth. I re-read them, wanted to write them down but decided to leave them between the pages in place for a re-read years later when I can experience them again for the first time.

    Billy is often taken back to his wartime experiences (very often, due to his PTS) by things happening in his daily modern life. He cannot see a bare foot without it looking blue and ivory, like those feet of corpses he saw in the war. He cannot watch four men singing without being taken back. Cannot eat syrup. Cannot be cold without feeling torn back in time. I liked these devices. Billy was imprinted for life by his experiences, and as he went on trying to live his life, they mastered him. He never escaped, or understood, what the war had done to him.

    I have to mention 'so it goes'. I like Erfael's interpretation of this as a device. I didn't get it while I was reading the book. I admit I did find it annoying, though I felt he was making a point about death I couldn't unravel it at the time.

    As for Dresden and the large scale loss of life, I didn't feel SH5 handled it in any particular way, because I don't feel it was handled at all. In this way it is left open to each reader's interpretation. Did the fact we never saw the inhabitants of Dresden act as a metaphor for the way so many faceless, unknown people were killed? It's down to the reader. Vonnegut never makes it clear. For me, it made less impact than if I'd seen it on the news. The moust touching part of the book for me was when Billy feeds his friend syrup from a spoon quickly before a guard arrives. His friend cries. That was it for me. How these idividuals had suffered so much just by being on the sidelines and taken as prisoners. How could they ever recover?

    For me, SH5 is about the "fallout" of war on all those involved or touched by it in some way but who never make a headline. Yes, 135,000 people died in Dresden, but we can't comprehend that, it's too many, it's a number. Are people really people if you know nothing about them? For me it was about the Billy Pilgrims who went home and lived the rest of their life in mental trauma, never knowing or understanding what had happened to them, or what was real anymore.

    (edit). Reading this post, I think SH5 might well be better than I thought -while- I was reading it. I expect it rewards re-reading very well, and it wouldn't surprise me if the next time I read it I think it's a 4.
    Last edited by spiralguru3d; January 28th, 2011 at 08:40 AM.

  11. #11
    Let me be your gateway Chekhov's Avatar
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    This is a very strange, inventive and hilarious novel that I enjoyed a lot but left me feeling underwhelmed overall. It's essentially two different stories (the mundane "A plot" set on Earth and the fantasy "B plot" set on Tralfamadore) which I found confusing at first, until the "sticking in time" mechanism was explained further. The biggest problem is the lack of an overall story arc that makes reading it worthwhile, and there is no real conclusion which I found unsatisfying.

    I also saw the movie which was quite faithful to the tone of the novel. Apparently Vonnegut himself loved it.
    I don't even remember who Pilgrim is, or that he is in the story, so I have no thoughts about him or his occupation.
    ...he's the main character. Most of the story is told from his perspective.

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