“you’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner”, says the 1969 New York Times review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. When I purchased it on a whim, I wasn’t even aware that it possibly belonged in the ‘science-fiction corner’, and if I had been, I probably wouldn’t have bought it at all.
It was this letter in particular that made me want to read Slaughterhouse 5. I was not only inspired by Vonnegut’s writing style and his matter-of-fact, down-to-earth tone, but by the letter’s surprisingly moving conclusion: “A lot of people believe that beauty is some kind of conspiracy – along with friendly laughter and peace.”
On reading Slaughterhouse 5, I wasn’t disappointed. Based on Vonnegut’s personal experiences, the book depicts protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, as a Prisoner of War during the World War Two bombing of Dresden. But the story isn’t quite as straightforward as that, Billy is “unstuck in time”: we travel with him from Dresden to Trafalmadore to Vermont to Dresden, and so on throughout his life. Sandwiched between a moving yet honest introduction, straight from the mouth of Vonnegut, and an equally moving conclusion, the story is fun, humorous and grounding.
Often descirbed as an anti-war novel, it’s much more than that. It contains some of the most though-provoking passages that I’ve read:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference.
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
Then there’s the infamous refrain. “So it goes” appears 106 times in the book when death occurs. I suspect that it means different things to different people, but for me it was a continous reminder: with death comes life; with the end comes hope; and that even even after a massacre, when there is nothing to say, the birds still poo-tee-weet.
I recently gave my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 to someone special to me. This person isn’t a reader, but I hoped that one day in the future, if he ever decided to pick up a book, then it would be this one. Can’t really say better than that.