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A book by Kurt Vonnegut.

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The Value of a Good Introduction

  • May 13, 2010
  • by
Unlike most novels, "Slaughterhouse-Five" begins with an introduction that you have to read. That is to say, most introductions are interesting and informative, but if you skip them you haven't really missed anything. Not this one - if you want to read the novel, you are required to read the introduction. That's just the way it is.

I'm pleased to see that Kurt Vonnegut is now receiving the acknowledgment due him as a great American writer, and indeed received at least a part of that acknowledgment during his lifetime, but not as much as he will over the next few decades. That's one reason you have to read the introduction. Another is that Vonnegut's reputation rests primarily on a series of interconnected novels he published in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and "Slaughterhouse-Five" is the last and probably best of these. And finally, you have to read the introduction because it explains how and why he came to write the novel, and pretty much gives away the whole point of the piece.

Under ordinary circumstances we would probably say that if we already know the point of a novel (or anything else), there's no reason to read it, but this is Kurt Vonnegut, remember. In addition to everything else that was unique about him, he loved to talk to his readers, in person or in print. You certainly read his novels because they're great, but you read them at least as much for the opportunity to hang out with the guy.

Not to rehash the whole business, introduction or novel, but as the opening line declares, "Slaughterhouse-Five" is primarily about a man named Billy Pilgrim who has come unstuck in time. He does not experience his life in a linear fashion, like you and I do. Rather, he jumps around from event to event in his life randomly, and may find himself in any place or any period at any moment. Which would be fascinating in and of itself, and made all the more so by the unbelievable things that Billy has been through, including the moments before his birth and after his death.

You get to be with him as he works his way around Europe during World War II, eventually being captured by the Nazis and imprisoned, like his creator, in Dresden, just in time for the Allied bombing of the place. You get to be with him during a perfectly normal upper-middle-class postwar lifestyle where he becomes an optometrist, marries the boss's daughter, prospers, and survives an airplane crash on his way to a convention. You get to be with him when he's kidnapped by the alien Tralfamadorians for observation purposes, which is not as bad as it sounds when you consider that his captors are kind to him, teach him a great deal, and provide him with a companion in the form of a gorgeous adult-film star named Montana Wildhack.

And you also get to be with him as he comes to realize from the Tralfamadorians that everything is eternal and immortal. The aliens don't go through time in a linear fashion either, but unlike Billy, they are constantly present to every moment of time, from the creation of the universe to its destruction. This is how Billy can be present on Tralfamadore with his gorgeous mistress and on Earth with his devoted wife both at the same time, and why he attempts to teach the world that nothing is ever lost. He doesn't succeed, of course, but one of the best things about "Slaughterhouse-Five" is that his failure doesn't bother him in the least, exactly because nothing is ever lost.

Now, in some ways, this is kind of depressing, since it implies that the universe is going to go the way it goes no matter what we do, but Vonnegut's deliberately simple style somehow turns it into a comforting doctrine. And that's the final reason you have to read the introduction.

In it, as I said, he describes how he came to write "Slaughterhouse-Five". Briefly, he wrote it in this particular manner at least in part because of the wife of his old Army buddy, a man who had lived through the bombing of Dresden with Vonnegut. This woman worried that Vonnegut would make war sound like fun, and thus make children like hers want to go out and fight and die. She needn't have worried - I can assure you there is nothing fun about war as presented here, although it is kind of amusing when Billy encounters a couple of characters from Vonnegut's previous books. The important point, though, is that the author structured his book to not only claim, but demonstrate, that nothing is ever lost.

One way he did this, and the most obvious, comes at the introduction's end, where he points out that "Slaughterhouse-Five" begins with the line "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time" and ends with the line "Poot-tee-weet?" That's his transcription of bird song, a sound Billy hears at a rather horrible moment. The sound reminds him once again that no matter how dreadful life can get, the birds still sing, and their song, like everything else, is never lost.

So in his introduction, Vonnegut brings the opening and closing of his novel together and shows us what it can teach us. And now that you know that, you still have to read the introduction. You have to read the novel, too, because there's more in it than just that. I'll let you find it for yourself. I'll tell you one thing, though; Vonnegut was a master prose stylist, and in "Slaughterhouse-Five" he found a style that matched his theme just about perfectly. And that's rare enough that I can't allow you to miss it. So what are you waiting for? Go read it!

Benshlomo says, Every word from the mouths of the wise is like gold.

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review by . June 24, 2010
I first read Vonnegut in high school and loved his subversive perspective in "Cat's Cradle." I returned home to my parent's over-flowing bookshelf after graduating from college eager to jump back into that whole "reading for pleasure" game. I picked this one up (my dad had it since he was in college!) and began turning the pages.       This book was definitely captivating and engaging - and the …
review by . June 09, 2010
Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge sucker for time travel. From my early years as a Star Trek nerd to my current days as a quantum theory enthusiast, I've loved it, wished it were feasible, focused all my writing energy on finding the perfect temporal paradox, the perfect science fiction excuse, something that wasn't forced and had the decency to treat time travel as something morally and philosophically as well as scientifically complicated. A good, seriously-done time travel story …
review by . May 23, 2010
I first read this book in high school when my English teacher recommended it. After completing it, I then went to the library and sequentially checked out and read all of the other books they had by Vonnegut. Fundamentally, it is an anti-war book based on the Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden. The city had no real military or strategic value and was swollen with refugees; the goal of the allies was simply to kill as many German citizens as possible.    Billy Pilgrim is a …
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
A quirky satire of just about everything, this book is probably Vonnegut's most famous, and is an excellent introduction to the body of his work. One tale told sequentially, another told randomly, and both fitting together to create an ironic, iconic, bizarrely entertaining story. Another summer reading great.
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Funny, smart, and unlike a lot of things I've read.
Quick Tip by . June 29, 2010
I've read all of Vonneguut. I liked Breakfast of Champions better.
Quick Tip by . June 27, 2010
so it goes
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
Quick Tip by . June 21, 2010
great, but not my favorite k. von.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
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Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classicSlaughterhouse-Fiveintroduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don't let the ease of reading fool you--Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..." Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy--and humor. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

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ISBN-10: 0385333846
ISBN-13: 978-0385333849
Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Genre: Literature & Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
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