This is one of those books that I felt, as a fan of both sci-fi and 20th century American fiction, I should read. That feeling of obligation is perhaps what kept it on my ‘to read’ shelf for so long, as often these must-read seminal novels turn out to be disappointing. I am delighted to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not one of those books. It’s bleak and shocking, but it’s also very funny. What’s more, it’s witty and clever, without being smart-arse. I liked this book, a lot.
The story, told un-chronologically due to a mix of flashback and time travel, is of Billy Pilgrim. Born in Ilium New York, Billy enlists in the army during World War Two, and finds himself captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow prisoners are held in Dresden in the fifth block of an unused abattoir, and so Billy survives and witnesses the aftermath of the fire-bombing of that city in February 1945. On his return from Europe, he qualifies as an optometrist, marries the boss’ obese daughter and has two children, has a PTSD-fuelled breakdown, survives a plane crash, discovers he is a time traveller and is kidnapped by aliens and kept in a zoo on their home planet, where he has a baby with a fellow-abductee, an American film star. None of this is explained, or revealed to you in any particular order, but that doesn’t matter. You just to go with it, and have fun. Boy do you have fun.
The novel is full of remarkable, ordinary characters (failed science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout was a favourite of mine), and the writing is a delight, as the destruction of Dresden is described in the same matter of fact way as the eating habits of Pilgrim’s gargantuan wife. Terrible things happen to people, and one of the things Billy (and you along with him) learns along the way is that while death is just around the corner, but might not be the end. So it goes.