Slaughterhouse Five was not the novel I expected. Based on nothing but the vaguest notion of the plot, which I formed solely on the title, I pictured a gritty, war-torn, 1984-ish tale of hopelessness and carnage.
Instead, I was swept along with the funny, bizarre, and moving life of Billy Pilgrim – a survivor of the Firebombing of Dresden from World War II. He was a prisoner of war, an optometrist, a husband and father, a time-traveller, an alien abductee, a motivational speaker, a murder victim, and a zoo exhibit. The story is told in a non-linear order, shifting quickly between horrific war scenes, childhood memories, and the quiet yet meaningful moments of everyday life.
Overall, it’s a war novel injected with just enough science fiction to make it really hard to put down.
Central to the story is Pilgrim’s abduction experience with the alien species, the Tralfamadorians. Through his abduction, he learned from them how perceive time in the 4th dimension. Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time’ following his experience. He is no longer required to live and experience his life in a linear fashion. Instead, he can live and re-live moments at will.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. … When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”
The alien species can view any and all parts of their life at their will, so death is not something to fear or regret. It is merely a part of life. This perception of time reminded me forcefully of the movie Arrival.
What would your life be like if you could just seamlessly flit from moment to moment, reliving the good, bad and ugly at will along the way with the knowledge that all has happened before and is inevitable? This perception of life and time gifts Pilgrim his calmness and mindfulness. He doesn’t lack care in his interactions with others, but he has a unique perspective on his life which allows him to have a measured response to all that happens. He is, essentially, stoic. This allowed me, the reader, an unbiased look at his life and war experience. I can see how this novel has become an enduring antiwar classic.
Though not an overtly religious book, the Prayer for Serenity reappears throughout, to hammer home the message that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Something we should all keep in mind as 2020 keeps kicking us in the guts.
5 azure curtain togas out of 5.