Slaughterhouse Five (audio)

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.

See other reviews at Jenny’s Books, Things Mean a Lot, Just a Reading Fool, Rose City Reader, and Rob Around Books.

This entry was posted in Audiobooks, Classics, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Slaughterhouse Five (audio)

  1. Kristen M. says:

    I read a whole stack of Vonnegut years ago in college and can’t remember a single thing about any of them. However, I do recall feeling about all of them much like you did on this one — appreciating the talent in them but not having any sort of emotional connection to them. It’s a stack that I should go back to for a re-read. Even your description isn’t jogging my memory and that’s pretty bad!

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen, As much as I appreciated Vonnegut’s talent, I don’t see myself reading any more of his books soon, so I’m amazed you read a bunch at once!

  2. Eva says:

    I can’t explain why, but Vonnegut makes me really, really nervous. I actually very much enjoyed the only novel of his I’ve ever read (Cat’s Cradle), but somehow I haven’t been able to convince myself to read more by him!

    • Teresa says:

      Eva, If I do decide to read more Vonnegut, I’ll keep Cat’s Cradle in mind. I’m just not sure that I loved this enough to want more.

  3. Study Window says:

    I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Vonnegut. This certainly seems to be far more complex than I would have imagined and I suspect I’ve been unfair to him. However, it still doesn’t seem like my sort of book. I think I’ll pass for the moment.

    • Teresa says:

      SW, Definitely not for everyone, but I was surprised that, despite the complex structure, the language and basic idea is quite accessible.

  4. Jenny says:

    I just went back and read what I wrote about it this year, and I’m surprised at how harsh I was! But I meant it. I didn’t have an emotional connection either, and oh, how tired I got of “So it goes”.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I don’t disagree with anything you said in your review, but I did end up liking it more than you did. And I did kind of like the repeated “so it goes” refrain, even though I got the point after the 100th time. It was like an anti-exclamation point for otherwise appalling moments in the story.

  5. Steph says:

    I think I had a similar reaction to this one that you did. It was the first Vonnegut I ever read, and while I liked it a good deal, I didn’t love it the way I thought I would. When I read Cat’s Cradle last year, I really loved that one a good deal (even if it was similarly befuddling). I’m glad to hear the audio experience was so pleasant – I would certainly be worried that Vonnegut’s zaniness would make for a rather schizophrenic listening experience.

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, I’m not sure if I expected to love it–I really had no idea how to react because my feelings about postmodern novels like this are wildly unpredictable. I did expect it to be zanier in tone than it was, but that might be because of Ethan Hawke’s quietly intense reading style. It worked, but my internal reading voice might have been more antic had I read it in print.

  6. Christy says:

    I am in agreement. I thought it was clever, but I didn’t really love it. I also read Galapagos by Vonnegut in high school and thus don’t remember much except that people who were going to die later in the book had asterisks placed next to their names. Again, clever.

  7. Nymeth says:

    A lot of people mention feeling disconnected from Vonnegut’s work, and while I can see how that would happen, my reaction to his books is almost more emotional than intellectual. I can see the cleverness, but the cleverness isn’t really the point for me. I don’t know what it is about him that grabs me by the gut, but something does – maybe it’s that his tone reminds me of my long-time favourites Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and that makes me feel immediately at home in his prose? Anyway, your post made me crave some more Vonnegut. I think I’ll start Breakfast of Champions.

    • Teresa says:

      Ana, I was really interested in your discussion of your emotional response in your post. There were scenes that grabbed me, like the backwards movie, but as a whole it didn’t. You might be right though that being at home with the writing style would make a difference.

  8. Jeanne says:

    I’m with Nymeth about Vonnegut grabbing me “by the gut,” but I haven’t reread any of it since I was 19 or 20. I always thought he wouldn’t be good in audio form, because he does so much with pauses and space on the page. It almost makes me think of what sports fans talk about with televised sports–you can’t “direct your own focus.”

    • Teresa says:

      Jeanne, I’ll have to take a look at a copy of the book next time I’m in the bookstore, just to see how it’s laid out on the page. Audio certainly can’t capture that.

  9. rebeccareid says:

    This sounds very interesting — even the fact that audio worked well. IT sounds a bit confusing so that surprises me. This is a “some day” book for me. Not because I expect to love it….

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I really didn’t expect the audio to work, but it did. I think it worked because you know the basic story from the beginning, and most of the book just sort of rifs on the basic story with little vignettes and meditations and such.

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