This is a very funny novel that- in retrospect- breaks your heart; it's the blackest black humor you will ever read.
It must have taken great courage for Vonnegut- as talented as he is- to take the Allied bombing of Dresden Germany during WWII and make it the main stage for this theater of the absurd tale, particularly since he witnessed firsthand what happened to Dresden. Fail, and you risk being pummeled by the critics for trivializing a horrific, nearly unimaginable event. (For those who don't know, Dresden wasn't "just" bombed; it was turned into a raging firestorm, with hurricane-force winds dragging thousands of victims into the flames to be cremated, and depleting the oxygen in the underground shelters, leaving thousands more asphyxiated.) But Vonnegut didn't fail; he succeeded brilliantly in conveying the absurdity of war by not embellishing events, the tone of the book remarkably matter-of-fact as his main character- Billy Pilgrim- jumps through time and space, gaining a unique perspective on the follies of mankind.
The name of his main character is especially telling of Vonnegut's intentions. Perhaps the most famous Billy in literature is Melville's Billy Budd, an innocent soul whose fate is an unjust death that suggests life is predetermined. And Pilgrim brings to mind John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, an allegorical tale of the escape from the City of Destruction (Dresden) to the Celestial City of enlightenment (the home world of the superior Tralfamadorians, who explain human existence to Billy.)
Perhaps by writing Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut gained some measure of catharsis, found a way to deal with his memories of Dresden and its aftermath. Like many veterans whose refuse to discuss their war experiences, a more direct, "realistic" approach to the firebombing might have been too painful. By taking an indirect approach, however, he was able to open a door that otherwise would have remained locked. That's fortunate for us, since Slaughterhouse Five rises above the historical account of that terrible event to address the larger issue of what it means to be human in a world where what humans do doesn't always make sense.
This is an insightful, important book, and one of Vonnegut's best.
-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein
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