Reading Vonnegut for the First Time

Saturday, August 13, 2011

As a science fiction fan, I have considered it a personal failing that I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut.  As a pacifist, the fact that I had never read Slaughterhouse Five made that failing sting a little more.  I wish I could say that reading this book was worth all of the years of self-recrimination.  I wish I could say that I finished it.  But the only thing I can say with any certainty is that I didn't get it.

I won't say that I don't understand why this book is considered a classic of science fiction specifically and literature generally.  Vonnegut's writing is by turns funny, poignant, frightening, or evocative.  Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an accidental soldier who is captured by the Germans in 1945 and taken to Dresden.  He is there during the Dresden bombings, when the Allies bombed the non-military city of Dresden and killed over 100,000 people.  Vonnegut himself was a German prisoner of war who lived through the Dresden bombing and its aftermath.  But this is not in fact the major event of Billy's life.  Billy becomes "unstuck in time", moving through his own lifeline from prisoner to wealthy optometrist to alien zoo exhibit...yes, I said alien exhibit.  Because the other major fact of Billy's life is that he was abducted by aliens on the night of this daughter's wedding.

OK, I only know the last part because I read the SparkNotes for the complete novel.  Because I couldn't finish the book.  Even with the excellent writing, I could not get into this story.  It wasn't the writing, or the war, or the time travel, or the alien abduction.  The only explanation I can come up with is that my brain just doesn't think the way that Vonnegut's does.  Even though I already knew the destination theme-wise, I just couldn't follow where Vonnegut was leading.  Despite my natural inclination to agree with the book's anti-war message, I wasn't sure how Billy Pilgrim traveling through time and being abducted by aliens was supposed to articulate that message.  Of course, had I finished it, maybe all would become clear.  And that's on me.  I guess I'll just have to continue living my life as a science fiction fan who hasn't read Vonnegut.  But this time I'll forgive myself.


  1. I sympathize as I also couldn't get into it, though the premise sounded great and Vonnegut is a classic author that everyone is supposed to read and like. I guess I missed something along the way, too.

  2. I think it was a question of living your life in perspective, something that old, scarred people would love to do. I'm sad that you couldn't get into it, because I think it's an amazing novel. But at least you gave it a go and that's the important.

  3. That's the thing with Vonnegut, I suppose. It's all or nothing. I've read his entire bibliography and (aside from Bluebeard which is entirely different) if you didn't like Slaughterhouse-Five, it's a good bet you won't like his other novels.


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