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Slaughter-House-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

One of my favorite television series this season is Criminal Minds, and in getting into the series, I watched all the back episodes over Christmas break. One episode featured two character talking about their shared love of Vonnegut, an author who I'd never read. Several of my friends had become Vonnegut fanatics in high school but the most I had ever read of him was the first ten pages of Slaughter-House-Five when I was completing my clinical experience at a high school.

Slaughter-House-Five is the disjointed story of World War II Veteran Billy Pilgrim, an eye doctor from New York whose life changes drastically after he is captured in the war and made to live through the bombing of Dresden. The story is told as Billy writing his own book about the bombing of Dresden, but goes into his time spent on another planet (with non-linear time and five sexes instead of two), his time before and after the bombing, and the entirety of his life.

I suppose I should start by saying that this was an odd book to read.

Despite having read the back and hearing a great deal about the book, I was not prepared for the completely non-linear way that Vonnegut tells the story. Billy and the narrative leap around from point to point in a way that I struggled at first to keep up with. The disjointed nature of the story made it hard to the point of frustrating to follow during the first hundred pages. Several times, I was ready to put down the book and go pick up something I knew that I would slip easily into.

After the first hundred pages (closer to 150, really), the story begins to come together, drawing on the threads that are laid down in the first section. Instead of feeling disjointed and incoherent, the pieces of the puzzle snap together and it becomes the portrait of a man with mental instability and post-traumatic stress disorder; a man who has seen more than anyone should have to and who is coping in the only way he knows. The bits on Billy's "alien planet" are fascinating looks at the human species as animals, and the jumps between Dresden and other locations all serve to build Billy's tale.

My initial struggles aside, I enjoyed this book as an intellectual exercise, if not an "escape." I'd like to read it again and see how the first half and second interact once the entire story is assembled. In the way, it's like watching a clever thriller or reading an intelligent mystery; once you've watched or read it once, you want to go back and see how many signs you can find that tell you of the outcome.


the forest-dweller

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