Listen. If we were playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, this blog would now be one degree from Kevin Bacon. How could that be? Well, I first heard of this book when I saw Footloose at age 12. In the movie, Ren (played by Kevin Bacon) says that Slaughterhouse Five is a classic after hearing some of the adults in the town complaining that it shouldn’t be taught in school. Well, my curiosity was piqued (which tells you something about the value of book-banning efforts). I did, however, realize that at age 12, I probably wasn’t ready for Kurt Vonnegut’s classic, but it stayed at the back of my mind as a book I wanted to get around to someday.
The novel begins with an introduction from the author explaining his plan to write a book about the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Slaughterhouse Five is that book, but it’s far from a typical war book. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, has become un-stuck in time. He flits around in the timeline of his own life, going from his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden to his life after the war to his old age to his death. He has no control over his movements—he just goes, and the reader comes along for the ride.
Besides traveling through time, Billy has also traveled through space, having been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who place him in a zoo with a habitat made to seem like a typical Earth home. The Tralfamadorians explain to Billy that all of time exists for them at once. If someone dies, it’s not a tragedy; it’s just a thing that happens, that has always happened, will always happen. Their words on such events, “so it goes,” become a refrain that anchors the novel.
This book is wonderfully written, and I found the space and time travel to be fascinating. There’s lots of material about determinism and perspective, and Billy’s time travel created some interesting juxtapositions. My favorite scene was a beautiful depiction of a war movie that Billy watched in reverse: the bombs go back into the planes and are eventually dismantled by women in factories. Lovely and heart-breaking, especially when held next to the horror of war that still feels immediate to time-traveling Billy.
I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes find complex books difficult in the audio format because when my attention drifts, I can’t easily backtrack. For that reason, I wasn’t sure about listening to this instead of reading it in print. I thought it might be too hard to follow. To my surprise, audio was a wonderful format for this book. Ethan Hawke was the reader for the unabridged edition that I listened to, and his calm but intense voice was just right. And the story loops back upon itself so much that there’s little to no reason to worry about missing major plot developments, especially given that the book isn’t really about plot but about a concept, a way of perceiving reality.
As you can see, I was impressed with Slaughterhouse Five. However, I can’t say that I loved it. As fascinated as I was by the structure and the style of it, I hardly ever felt an emotional connection to the story or the characters. It may be that the lack of connection is part of the point of the book, but the detachment I felt made the book seem overlong. I didn’t care enough to want to spend quite so much time with the characters in the strange world Vonnegut has created. For what it’s worth, the book isn’t especially long, and I was never frustrated to the point of wanting to give up; however, I couldn’t sustain the level of interest that I felt early on, when I was figuring out what was going on. So yes, it’s good and I appreciated it, but it’s not a firm favorite.