Last semester I found little extra time to read. School was keeping me very busy. With a new semester starting up this week, that very well could happen again. Fortunately over the break I had time to read a book. I chose Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I had never read anything by Mr. Vonnegut before, but everyone I've mentioned him to seems to like his books. I had never heard of Slaughterhouse-Five, but for some reason it jumped out at me when I was looking through the Time 100 List. Now having finished it, I'm pleased I chose this book.
The synopsis on Amazon reads:
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
After reading that sypnosis, I had no idea what to expect. I picked up a copy through Paperbackswap.com and started reading. Before going into a discussion about the book, please know there are spoilers. If you do not want to read further, then I'd like to say I definitely recommend this book. At first I wasn't really convinced I'd like it, but once I starting getting deeper into the story I found myself not wanting to put the book down.
The book starts off with the Narrator, who at times appears to be Kurt Vonnegut and not a fictional character, discussing the book he has written. This book is a novel about the Dresden bombing, and more specifially his experiences there. The story turns over to the life of Billy Pilgrim, a man who incidentally was at Dresden during World War II when the bombing occurred. Throughout the book it seems as if Billy Pilgrim is a fictional character, but the narrator seems to appear as a character at times. It was almost confusing, but I came to appreciate it. This wasn't the only unconventional style Mr. Vonnegut applies to this book.
As this is a story about a man "unstuck in time," the timeline of the central character is chopped up into segments paralleling each other. For instance, we may be reading about Billy Pilgrim's experience of getting captured by the Nazis and being transported to a prisoner camp, then a moment later we are at his and his wife's anniversary party a few decades later. There could be a scene with Billy in a hospital bed after being in a plane crash with his father-in-law, then suddenly we're back in World War II where Billy is imprisoned in a meat slaughterhouse in Dresden. All of a sudden we're tranported several years later to the alien world of Tralfamadore where Billy is trapped in a zoo-like enclosure. You get the idea.
It sounds like a jumbled mess, and at first I may have felt that way, but I soon found myself completely wrapped up in the story of a man who may or may not be travelling in time, re-experiencing key moments in his life. We learn from the Tralfamdorians that, since they live in four dimensions, time is not something that runs in a linear line. They've seen the beginning and end of existence. Billy Pilgrim learns this and is well aware of his time travelling. He doesn't have control of it, but he is aware of it. He says he knows how and when he'll die. He'd be in bed with his wife one moment then blink and be on a prison train in Europe. Moments later he would be right back in bed with his wife at the exact moment he left. It is an interesting form of storytelling.
Of course, it is up to the interpretation of the reader whether Billy Pilgrim is actually travelling in time or just imagining it. The author presents the idea that when someone dies, life does not end. It is as if Billy Pilgrim may have died, since he does know his death, and is going to continue experiencing moments in his life for the remainder of time itself.
I do recommend Slaughterhouse-Five, though I truly believe it is not for everyone. It is very unique in its format, and that might not translate to a good story for some people. I have not read other Vonnegut books so I don't know if this is common for his works. I have read many things that say this is his most powerful book. I'll have to try some other ones and make that determination for myself. So it goes.