Arguably Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) has an unusual set up – it’s a science-fiction anti-war novel with World War II as its setting. Similarities can be drawn with Philip K. Dick’s the Man in the High Castle, to some extent, a work which contemplates what could have happened had the Nazis won the war.
For Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist is Billy Pilgrim. He’s battling in WWII, but is also something of a time traveller. The work is considered semi-autobiographical due to Vonnegut’s brutal experiences of battling in the war. There’s a central section in the novel that deals specifically with a key event in Vonnegut’s life, so we shall delve on in and consider the merits of this famous book as we go along.
Although we didn’t particularly enjoy this book, we can see the artistic value in it and applaud Vonnegut’s efforts to write something original. Whether it’s the arbitrary cutting back and forth across time travel or the borderline spontaneity of the prose (similar to Sartre’s, often frustrating, The Reprieve – based on the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938), it just didn’t do much for us.
There is, however, plenty to like if black humour, philosophy, and meta-fictional themes are your thing. The non-linear story cuts back and forth as Pilgrim experiences a wide range of different lives in varying eras, which culminates in the one experience Vonnegut considered a defining moment in his life.
This event is portrayed in considerable detail. Vonnegut was part of the Battle of the Bulge and was captured and made a POW. Taken to Dresden, the city was promptly bombed by the Royal Air Force on 13th February, 1945. To survive this ordeal, Vonnegut clambered into a meat locker three stories underground where he remained for some time. Upon returning to the surface, he found nothing but rubble – the city destroyed.
This is experienced by Billy Pilgrim, who subsequently develops PTSD and begins dealings with the (and here’s the sci-fi bit) Tralfamadorians, who are toilet plunger shaped individuals from outer space. This, of course, leads you to believe whether he’s imagining his increasingly paranormal experiences, or really involved in some transmundane hijinks.
Consequently, it’s a non-chronological novel with some serious scope and it’s considered one of the best works of the previous century. Whilst we didn’t dig it, we can still urge anyone remotely intrigued by the above description to find yourself a copy and give it a go. You might well bloody love it.
Released in 1972, the film adaptation (directed by George Roy Hill) was a commercial failure. It received positive reviews, however, and Vonnegut said “I drool and cackle every time I watch that film” such was his delight with it.
In 2013, director Guillermo del Toro (famous for Pan’s Labyrinth and the Shape of Water) announced he planned to adapt the film again, but the project was sidelined due to his involvement in the Hobbit films. Maybe don’t hold your breath on this one, then.