SynopsisPrisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.
What Did We Think?
Vonnegut's most acclaimed work is a darkly funny book, peculiar and strange as it hops around all over the place. Part memoir, part (anti)war fiction, part science fiction, its a very difficult book to categorise. For example, we're reading this as part of a science fiction/ fantasy book club - so is it science fiction? We found that depends wildly on your reading of the text. So slight and carefully crafted is the plot that it can be read as being all a wild delusion on the part of Billy Pilgrim, that the time travelling and alien abduction are the result of his Dresden induced trauma interplaying with the dementia his daughter is certain he has. On the other hand you can read it as a literal truth, that it happened (or happens) exactly as Billy claims it does. In either case, some found the lack of definitive science fictional content, particularly with regards to the nature of Billy's time travelling, to be disappointing.
Something that was almost unanimous was a feeling that the novel was extremely honest. There was a sense that Vonnegut contemplated deeply on the question of how to write a war novel, how to understand the point of war. If any. Again, Vonnegut's skill as a writer shone through in that you cannot clearly say that this is an explicitly anti-war novel, rather it is a story which emphasises the pointlessness and pathetic nature of war and leaves you to draw your own conclusions, it very pointedly avoids soapboxing.
Another point of discussion was that of Billy Pilgrim himself, a character Universally seen as being almost unbelievable pathetic, and yet also painfully normal. An observer in his own life he was found to be both frustrating and hard to sympathise with. It was decided that this aspect of his character was almost certainly deliberate and could be a point about passivity and acceptance, or it could be a criticism that people tend to cruise through their lives without sieving the moment. On a more practical note, it could be that Pilgrim's passive nature was a narrative necessity in order to add credence to the idea to the Tralfamadorian model of time being fixed and free-will being non existent.
Overall, feeling towards the book was positive although there was significant disagreement over several issues raised. The group found it hard to agree about what the book actually stood for, or what certain sections and elements meant. Rather than a criticism of the novel however, this is testament to the complex and engaging nature of Slaughterhouse 5.
The votes were as follows: 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 9, 10, 10
The audio book received considerable praise from Al, it's narrated by Ethan Hawke and has an interesting interview with the author at the end.
Also: in reply to a sub-discussion we had. Yes, the book has been banned and censored from its publication in 1969 right up to the modern day. It ranked 46th in the American Library Association list of the most frequently banned/challenged books to 2000-2009.