Friday, May 13, 2011

Slaughterhouse Five

Picking a ‘classic’ can be a crap shoot.  Some books are important in our world collection of works and they stand up to the test of time.  Hemingway's books come to mind for me.  Others are important because of what they meant at the time they were written but they don’t necessarily have the same impact in the modern world. 

As noted in the War & Peace write up, it is an amazing book, but many aspects of the story come across like a gossipy romance novel.  Important – ABSOLUTELY!  Impressive – certainly.   Timeless? – maybe not so much.

Slaughterhouse Five is one of those works.  It is considered an  “American Classic” and was hailed as one of the worlds greatest antiwar books. 

We knew little of the book before reading it.  Personally, I thought the Slaughterhouse Five was a reference to five individuals about whom the story would be centered.  I figured they experienced (or perpetrated) a horrific wartime event.  Nope, the reference is to the name of the building that was their makeshift war camp.    Because of the nature of the building the prisoners who were in that location when the firebombing of Dresden occurred they survived whereas the rest of the prisoners as well as the German captors were killed.   This, however, is NOT the primary story.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an ill-equipped young man who gets deployed behind the German front at the worst possible time.  Before he can even be issued jack boots he is separated from his unit and ends up being captured.   

Billy survives the war and goes back home to his boring life and his boring wife. 

The story of Billy is not told in a linear style, as Billy experiences ‘shifts’ in time.  He experiences his first moment of getting lost in time in 1944 where he seems to ‘check out’ and jump to a moment in the future.  It is not clear if these time traveling moments are actually his later self-re-experiencing the harsh moments of his life or his way of escaping these moments when they actually occur.  (Perhaps the book The Time Traveler’s Wife ruined me for time travel.)  Regardless, both the flash forwards and the moments in the war are accurate events in Billy's life.

The other unique thing about Billy is that sometimes he time travels to the time that he was abducted by aliens and held in a zoo on their planet.  There he learns that all life events occur simultaneously and all events are destined to happen.  He is informed that he will die on February 13th, 1976 and thus during the war he isn’t filled with terror that his life might end.  This doesn’t give him any extra confidence, but with the knowledge of future events he is more calm than a lesser informed person might be. 

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the date of Billy’s death is 31 years to the day of the bombing of Dresden.  The 31 years doesn’t seem to see significant, but the author Is saying something about Billy by selecting that date.

We as a group felt that the book was dated and that there are far more detailed and informative books about WW2 available for readers.  The writing style was very simple and many of us finished this novel in a couple days. 

The author uses a phrase “so it goes” to punctuate moments of death.  It was an irritating nuance and while the intention is to show that that’s just how life works, it seemed to hammer the point home long after its usefulness.

A few members stated that this felt like a “boy book”.  We know that’s a dangerous statement because there is no actual definition of girl books or boy books.  The most general explanation I can give is that “boy books” tend to be story driven and little to no effort is made to get beneath the exterior actions of the characters.  Their feelings, fears, joys and emotions are not important to the story.  “Girl books” tend to present more of a balance between the plot points and how the characters feel about what is happening.  Cliché?  Sure, but this is our opinion.  For the record, war books can be “girl books” – The Things They Carried and Regeneration both fall into the “girl book” category for us.  Both were great reads and by no means should the males in our world ignore them as trivial.

We discussed the time travel aspect of the book at great length and wondered if when the novel was written if Vonnegut had much experience with men who had what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We felt that Billy’s time travel was a symptom of PTSD.

Vonnegut tells this story with great detail because he in fact was a prisoner held in the underground slaughterhouse and while he is NOT the Billy Pilgrim character he does write his experiences into the novel. 

The randomness of who will live and who will die in a war situation are highlighted in that Billy Pilgram had no skills, no supplies and really no friends and yet he comes home, while another character is strong, savvy, well connected and ends up being shot to death over the theft of a teapot.  A teapot is a great metaphor for the most useless and trivial thing to die for in a city that has just been destroyed and all inhabitants have just died.  A teapot!

I for one am glad that to have finally read this novel.  Not because it was so great and mind-blowingly entertaining, but because it is part of our American Classics collection and it isn’t fair to comment on current authors without the benefit of having the critically acclaimed authors and books under your belt too.

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