Banned Book Club: Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five

Published: 1969

Author: Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007)

Challenge status: #46 on Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009

Why: References to religious matters, sexual scenes, violence, obscene language, depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, negative portrayals of women, and references to ‘Magic Fingers’ (e.g. the vibrating beds). Note: There are records of this book being burned as well as challenged.

First line: “All this happened, more or less.”

Synopsis: Vonnegut is usually a trip to read, he comes up with all kinds of story-lines or plot devices that are just this side of absurd. Slaughterhouse-Five is his most autobiographical – think what you will about the incorporation of Tralfamadorians (the time traveling aliens that kidnap the main character). Ostensibly about the bombing of Dresden (1945, in WW II), the storyline follows Billy Pilgrim through his life – but not in a sequential timeline – rather, as Billy has gotten unstuck in time we bounce around his life story with him. The reader is ricocheted from the war, to an alien zoo, to formative events in Billy’s childhood, to major events and crises in Billy’s sunset years. At times one can almost see how the events connect, patterns manifest, and a coherent journey for our hapless protagonist. At others the reader feels as helpless as the unstuck-in-time Billy Pilgrim, forced to face the grimness of a wartime experience, the fading of memories and relationships, and the inevitability of life’s decline.

I’m not clear on whether, as a war veteran and thus witness of how little of our lives are really within our control, Vonnegut is genuinely making an argument against free will. But it is still an interesting reminder that as much as things change (people die! war ends!), eventually everything we experience in the moment immediately after becomes history. Just moments and figments trapped in amber.


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