Updated: Jun 16, 2020
REVIEWER: Todd Hogan
BOOK TITLE: Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade, a Duty Dance with Death
AUTHOR: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
GENERAL SYNOPSIS: In Kurt Vonnegut’s own words: “A fourth generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “The Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. This is a novel in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace.”
GENERAL IMPRESSION: Vonnegut had struggled for more than two decades with the challenge of writing about the fire-bombing of Dresden during WWII, conducted by the Allies nine months after D-Day and less than three months before the Germans surrendered. Dresden was a largely unprotected city filled with civilians fleeing the advancing Russian army. More than 135,000 people died in one night in the firestorms created by incendiary bombs dropped, a number much greater than the death toll in either Hiroshima or Nakasaki. Vonnegut survived because he was imprisoned two stories underground in a former slaughterhouse. To survive and witness the destruction is unimaginable madness, and to try to describe horror might seem impossible. Vonnegut wrote this novel after 23 years of published writing, mostly science fiction. He ultimately wrote about a survivor who periodically escapes into a world outside of earth and time. In the process of describing his outrage, horror, regret, and despair, he reluctantly deconstructs the form of the novel.
HOW WAS THIS BOOK SIGNIFICANT FOR YOU? This book impressed me as being as bold and innovative as it had to be in order to tell the unimaginable true story. Vonnegut describes himself as “a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations.” For this novel, he abandons those skills. He has written a story with no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. Before any confrontation can build, he reveals the outcome. On the first page, he tells who dies at the end. It gives a writer confidence that there are ways of expressing one’s art, no matter the subject. It is possible to write using the tools you have developed in writing more mundane stories.
HOW WILL IT AFFECT YOUR WRITING? The simple style, the willingness to break rules, the courage to tell a story that could not be told, encourages the writer to take those crazy chances necessary to create art.