That seemed to be the case as I started reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
I felt like putting down the book not too long after starting, namely because I didn’t like his style of prose. But the book reads quickly, and as I was 50-60 pages in I started to actually grow fond of his writing.
That isn’t to say it’s without issues, however.
For one, you’ll notice that the phrase ‘So it Goes’ appears frequently throughout the book—106 times to be exact. This phrase was irritating from the start. Vonnegut uses it to approach the perceived randomness of suffering and pain, and that he does consistently, though the phrase is quite mind numbing.
But the book is definitely ‘likeable’, and is composed in a genuinely creative way. Yes, it’s disjointed, repetitive at times, occasionally preachy (in a subtle manner), but he keeps the reader fully engaged.
As for the plot, well… let’s just say aliens and time travel are involved. In fact, there isn’t much use in discussing the plot. It’s quite absurd, and combines aspects of science-fiction, a semi-autobiographical narrative, with a little bit of history.
In fact, Vonnegut notes in the introduction:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…”
Looking back, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is almost… lifeless. It’s difficult to describe his personality, as he really only serves as a useful tool in the novel, rather then taking on a life of his own.
The crux of the novel, where a coherent plot does exist, is based on the firebombing of Dresden. In February of 1945, the allies scorched the eastern German city of Dresden. Although the city was more of a historical relic of Germany, the Allies found a need to level it.
Vonnegut was there during the war and retells his experience through Billy Pilgrim, who served as a chaplain’s assistant, although I found this account lacking. Or perhaps I’m too used to watching war films where I see people suffering in agony, truly seeing the dark side of war.
Lying in a hospital bed decades after the war, he finds himself as a roommate with a military historian. The two discuss the firebombing:
It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.
“I know,” said Billy.
“I know. I’m not complaining”
“It must have been hell on the ground.”
“It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.
“Pity the men who had to do it.”
“You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground.”
“It was all right,” said Billy. “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.”
The firebombing of Dresden is used to buttress Vonnegut’s anti-war stance. That’s the purpose of the book, but again, this sentiment is not nearly as strong as I’d imagined.
A point of contention I must raise is that he uses the figures of roughly 135,000 deaths from the firebombing. The actual number was around 25-35,000—a massive difference. I’m not sure what the scholarship was like towards the firebombing during the time the novel was written, but this was on the extreme high end of death toll estimates. Obviously it helps enhance his anti-war stance, but needs to be put into perspective.
I liked Slaughterhouse Five enough to look forward to reading his other books, namely Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, and potentially some other works. I’d recommend you give it a read as well.
Click here to get a copy of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut on Amazon.
Note: This book is widely available, as it’s a piece of classic American literature. Check to see if your local library has it if you don’t want to buy a copy.