I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>
The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.
It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.
The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.
The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.
Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.
It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.
I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.