Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

  • Vonnegut is one of those authors I have always hesitated over reading, fearing that he will not be my cup of tea. I am afraid it will be all male intellectual posturing. And isn’t it difficult to tell people you don’t like the books they recommended? It’s on a par with insulting their children. I think a tangled web of half-truths is a perfectly acceptable compromise, under the circumstances. 🙂

    • There are so many modern guy authors I don’t read because of exactly that, an idea I have that it’ll be “male intellectual posturing”. I’m concerned I may have brought this preconception to Vonnegut and spoiled my chance at liking him. This particular recommmender likes several authors I don’t (e.g., Paulo Coehlo); I’m hoping we find common reading ground soon. (:

      • Anna

        Well, I like Vonnegut (mainly Slaughterhouse-Five, which is the only novel of his I’ve read), but still have many favorite authors in common with you! (See: Oscar Wilde, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, and Tom Stoppard.) So I think there is hope for finding common ground.

        I also am glad you can tell the truth about not liking a book on your blog, and think you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember liking the absurdity (I am a sucker for absurdity). And to me there was something underneath the cleverness, and the fatalism did lead to something, it was just that it led to the anticlimactic idea that we all have to keep going and trying to act like good people anyway. (See: there’s only one rule, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”) But I am content to disagree.

        Also, this comment is me delurking, so: hello! Nice blog you have here!

        • Hello! Nice to hear from you! I’m pleased to see we have tastes in common – want to recommend me a book? 😀

          • Anna

            Hello! Oh dear, it’s hard to limit myself to just a few recommendations! How about: Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz (both young adult books; I read a lot of those), and
            Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney (nonfiction)? I thought they were all lovely.

      • I just realized my reply to your comment ended up all the way at the bottom! So, hi up here! 🙂

  • Oh, Jenny. It broke my heart and made me sad to see this review. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan and this work is the first of his I ever read. I know that we can’t expect everyone to like the same authors that we like but Vonnegut, Huxley and Lawrence hold a special place in my heart where it kind of hurts to see them unloved.

    You should maybe read some of the descriptions/synopses of his other books to see if you’ll like them. (:

    • Oh no! I hate breaking people’s hearts in this way! I think I’d have liked Vonnegut more if I’d read him when I was younger, but I put it off because I had it in my head that I didn’t like science fiction. I just didn’t connect with him. What do you like about him?

      P.S. I love your upside-down smiley. They are very cute when they don’t convert into icons. (:

      • I really like that Vonnegut has lived it. War? He’s done that. Being a POW? He’s done it. In Slaughterhouse-Five, we see how little of life is controlled by what we want and need – instead by what we’re given and what we make of it. But he holds our hand through it.

        Vonnegut is really hard to explain for me because I agree with Ana about it being an emotional connection. S-5 was the perfect book – but I did read it at a younger age. I’ve come back to it since and still loved it – but maybe point of exposure matter.

        I don’t love everything he’s written – Cat’s Cradle, I thought, was really beautiful – but hard to get into. It took me a second go at it before I was able to read it. Maybe Galapagos…

        P.S. Thank you! I don’t like them when they convert into icons.

      • See, this is why I always ask why people like books I don’t like – thanks for telling me! If I read another Vonnegut, I’m going to keep your & Nymeth’s thoughts on Vonnegut in mind.

  • I’m sorry that you didn’t like it 🙁 What I love about Vonnegut is his mix of sadness and tenderness over the horrible things humankind can do. He strikes me as someone who saw enough horrible things to become a misanthrope, and yet didn’t. He carried on, making jokes that are as funny as they are sad, and saying things like “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” His books are clever and all that, but they grab me by the heart, not by the mind. For me, there’s true feeling behind it all.

    Also, he reminds me a lot of both Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, whom I adore.

    That said, I can definitely see why he’s not for everyone 😛

    • Your comment definitely makes me think that Vonnegut isn’t the author for me. Because I can easily imagine a person having your reaction to his work, but I didn’t at all. And I usually love dark humor! I think I’ll give him a break for a while, then try again – any recommendations for my next try?

      • To be honest, I suspect you’ll have the same reaction to all of them 😛 Galapagos is really really good, though (imho), and the premise is even a bit Douglas Coupland-ish.

      • Well, that’s several votes for Galapagos; that’s what it’ll be, if I give him another go.

  • I haven’t read any Vonnegut yet, but have only heard good things in the past. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this one. I hope someone recommends another one in your comments for me to try.

    • I actually think Vonnegut and I are just not a good fit. Slaughterhouse Five, from what I’ve heard, is head and shoulders above most of his other books, so I think if you’re a new Vonnegut reader, it’s still the one to try. I’ll give Vonnegut another go, but I suspect my reaction to Slaughterhouse is a good measure of my reaction to Vonnegut full stop. Hope you have a better experience with him!

  • Eva

    Vonnegut intimidates me, as do Philip Roth and other 20th century ‘literary’ white American male authors. BUT, I did read Cat’s Cradle in 2007, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I haven’t felt the desire to read more of him, though.

    I feel SO bad when I strongly dislike a book that friends have recommended! It’s so awkward.

    • I used to be very intimidated by Vonnegut and Philip Roth (John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, all that lot), but I’ve sort of reached a place where I just don’t care about them. Kinda wish I’d just ignored the Vonnegut recommendation, but hopefully the subject will never come up again. (Cause, awkward.)

  • Oh, I despised Slaughterhouse Five. As you said, there’s no real point, and it wallows in its own vulgarity. Ugh.

    I think, as long as you have valid points for why you didn’t like a book, there’s nothing wrong with not liking it. Variety, after all, is the spice of life- we can’t all like Vonnegut. Just because something’s a classic doesn’t mean it works for everyone!

    • You’re right, I know you’re right! I always feel guilty for not liking classics though, unless they’re blatantly sexist or racist or whatever. If I could find out something to Vonnegut’s discredit, I’d feel better about it. 😛

  • My husband likes Vonnegut A LOT. He’s been trying to get me to read him for years, I just think I will not like him! So it happens that I will be reading my first Vonnegut for my Feb. book club mtg. Expectations are not high!

    • Well, good luck! I have often been pleasantly surprised by books for which I didn’t have high expectations. Hopefully that’ll happen to you with Vonnegut.

  • My one and only experience with Vonnegut was through Breakfast of Champions. I really didn’t enjoy it. I just found it to be very blase and, well, fatalistic. I just couldn’t appreciate the fact that the main character (essentially Vonnegut as it was a sort of memoir type thing I believe) was so indifferent and ‘meh, I can’t change it’ about everything that was happening to him. I understand that that’s the point, but it was so angering to me!

    I thought it had an almost Palahniuk feel but without the dark, more unassuming humor and relationship to true human feeling. I couldn’t connect with what was happening and felt absolutely annoyed at the fact that he was so blah about everything– I just wanted to shake him and be like ‘FOR REAL. Get over it!’ I guess I’m really big on the whole if you want something to happen, go do it and make it happen.

    I also felt as though he thought he was super clever so some of what he wrote just sounded very arrogant and look-how-smart-I-am. I don’t know, I obviously really didn’t like it, but I know there are a ton of people who luuurve his stuff so there must be some merit to it all. Just not my cup of tea ;p. Sorry about that rant; I should probably read more of his stuff before I make such statements… lol.

    • I appreciate your rant – I think that fatalistic stuff was at least part of what bothered me so much. But whenever there’s a book that zillions of people love love love, I feel like I could like it, if I could just get it. Like there’s a window that would open and I’d suddenly understand, and love it. This is I believe just wishful thinking (alas).

  • I have read this and Cat’s Cradle, and I enjoyed them both, but it didn’t necessarily make me want to read more Vonnegut. Out of the modern white male authors, I much prefer Roth and Updike; I don’t “get” Bellow and Pynchon.

    That said, I am much the same as you when it comes to telling someone I didn’t like a book. I try to focus on whatever I think might be the most positive aspect and mention something about it, or else I say nothing at all and hope I will never be confronted with the question, “Did you like it?” My only other defense is to simply not read the book and say my list has been too full for me to get to whatever was recommended. That feels a bit slippery.

    • I’ve never tried Roth or Updike or Pynchon or Bellow. Maybe one of these days.

      Avoidance used to be my main strategy, but now I feel like if I avoid the question as long as possible, they’ll guess I didn’t like it, and be more likely to see through my circumlocutory strategies later. So now I try to bring it up right before something distracting is about to happen; and I say a lot of words and then I’m all, Hey, let’s go eat s’mores!

  • Bea

    I’ve been trying to finish Slaughterhouse Five for the last couple of months, but I’m afraid is just not going to happen. Which is a shame, ’cause I think both this and Breakfast of Champions are really good… Thing is, he just makes me sad. I keep reading him out of a sense of duty or social commitment, but I can’t enjoy that. So, it’s all good for a novel or two, but I won’t be able to read him anymore ’cause it’s so hard to detach yourself from that sense of fatality, isn’t it?

    • I think I find the fatality stuff upsetting because I worry a lot that I detach too much, when bad things happen. So that’s something I struggle against, and I suppose it’s irritating to me to see detachment become practically a religion in Slaughterhouse. If that makes sense.

  • I’ve never read anything by Vonnegut, although he’s been recommended to me! At least I won’t feel bad if I don’t like it someday, since you didn’t either. I know exactly how you feel when you don’t like a book someone gave to you, and they love it. Very awkward.

    • So awkward. Fortunately he didn’t give it to me, just recommended it and then I got it at the library. :

  • Mumsy

    You know, as I read these comments, the thought that keeps recurring is that these authors are the male equivalent of “chick lit.” No one is fussed when men put women authors down; the idea is that if men don’t care for the subject matter or point of view, it is because it is written “only” for women, and hence does not qualify as “real” (read: male) lieterature. But when these male authors’ works do not resonate with women, women seem to assume that they are missing something vital and erudite.

    That said: I find the Updike-type novelists sort of tedious. Even when the writing is good (and it often is), I find it hard to care about the characters; I don’t engage emotionally with them.

    • Well, I agree that’s true in a way, though I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. (At least not with me.) For one thing, I don’t think Vonnegut is the male equivalent of “chick lit” – he’s a good writer, and he has interesting ideas which, if not absolutely original (what is?), are at least handled in an original way. For another thing, I’m not fussed about disliking Vonnegut because he’s a dude (hating Hemingway does not disturb my sleep), but because so many people love him so much with a culty and a passionate love. People I like and respect! People on whom I rely for book recommendations! That’s why I feel like I might be missing something. I feel the same about classics by women that are widely adored, like Virginia Woolf and Wuthering Heights. Do I not say, every time I talk to you about Wuthering Heights, “I didn’t like it when I read it – I’m going to try again”?

      Which I guess is just my raging against the “de gustibus” maxim. I constantly want to argue people out of disliking books I love, and I often do think it’s possible that someone could say the right thing that would give me a whole new understanding and appreciation for books I’ve not liked in the past.

  • I read this so long ago that I didn’t even recognize what it was about. I just know that I loved Vonnegut but I couldn’t really tell you why. ugh, does this mean I should re-read it?! I do recall that Cat’s Cradle was my fave.

    • Haha, I think if you’re saying “ugh”, that seems to imply you’re not in the mood for a reread. If you do reread it, though, I am interested to hear what you liked about it.

  • I haven’t read this one, but I am planning to read it in the next year or two. I completely understand how you feel about not liking a book that everyone else loves.. I still remember how everyone tried to convince me that A Tale of Two Cities was so great. 🙂

    It’s also really hard when it’s a gift from someone. I always cross my fingers when reading a gift book, hoping that it will be good so that the giver won’t feel bad. So far I haven’t had to lie though.

    • Oh, yeah, Charles Dickens. I have friends and family members who just love Dickens, and so far I’ve never been able to get into him. Yet! The right book could be just around the corner! (I won’t try Tale of Two Cities though.)

      I rarely get books as gifts that I’ve not read before – and when I do, it’s usually books by authors I already love. So that hasn’t been a huge problem – I was worried about House of Leaves this year, but thankfully I enjoyed it a lot.

  • I am so relieved to see someone else react to this book the way I did! I think Vonnegut is pretty brilliant with ideas but his writing leaves something for me to desire, to be honest. I don’t think it flows at all. I find some of his shorter essays are better a better written expression of his ideas. Just my opinion. 🙂

    • Essays, eh? Well, I have just sort of rediscovered essays as a genre, so that might actually be a great place for me to go next! Maybe I will love his essays and gradually grow to love his fiction too. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • I read this in high school and don’t remember anything about it- at least, nothing in your review draws anything in my mind! I still have it on my shelf so maybe I should bring it down for a re-read. Though you don’t make it sound very appetizing!

    • Ignore me! Lots of people love it – have a reread and let me know what you think.

  • Gary

    The book was published during the domestic turmoil which was partially a result of the Vietnam War. Vonnegut had a story to tell, based on his experience in WWII, regarding the horrors of war. I think Slaughterhouse 5 has to be read in that context. The surreal nature of the book fits perfectly in a world where those who are not participating in the actual fighting are out of sync with those more directly involved. Read his letter home to his family after surviving Dresden here: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/11/slaughterhouse-five.html

    • I appreciate his writing it – very much, actually. I think it’s so important that such experiences be written about. This book just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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