And so it goes…
I am not entirely sure how to go about starting to review this book. I was warned it was weird, and it was. It follows no known conventional narrative, no typical novel. In that, there is no conventional end, middle or even Act I-III format. So what is the appeal of this apparent classic?
Having now read it, I am still not sure I understand its appeal. It’s certainly strange and feels more like an overview of somebody’s life, but not told in a conventional (or even a logical) order. If you want to read a book with a conventional plot, look elsewhere. It has nothing like what you might expect from any of the hundreds of books you might expect to read in one lifetime.
Its protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, American war veteran and former POW. This element of the story – his involvement in the war – makes up most of the text. It haunts him through his life, as does the bombing of Dresden which is referenced quite heavily too (he was a POW during this bombing). All this would make some sort of sense if it was not for the fact that the “story” involves Billy Pilgrim’s abduction by aliens. Aliens that have licked space time and permit people to travel about at will, sometimes without direction and without wanting to do so.
These aliens with their weird science, permit him to move throughout his life from beginning to end – to experience his birth, his period as a POW and even his death – over and over again. For his part, he is expected to play the part of actor, acting out the same roles as they occurred, in the way(s) that they occurred. As I mention above, there is no narrative to link this all together. There is no plot and aside from Pilgrim himself, no real characters. Oh sure, there are some incidental people but they do nothing to drive the non-existent plot. They are little more than wallpaper or curtains.
During the story, Pilgrim marries a famous Hollywood actress but she, and their child, is little more than a footnote in this bizarre text. Vonnegut himself pointed out that there were no characters, no real plot and no dramatic confrontations that are supposed to drive books. Quite simply, it is a window with all the pieces broken and no real point in putting it together. Kind of life Pulp Fiction, I suppose, only weirder.
Yet behind the text is much in the way of auto-biography. Vonnegut was a WWII veteran and the book is an outlet for many of his experiences. He too survived the Dresden Bombing. Far from being critical of the allied bombing of the city, Pilgrim points out how many lives it saved – how many civilians were killed during The Blitz. Yet it is not a moral tale, really. It is more a statement of fact.
It displays a certain quirkiness, daftness and seriousness all in one that I guess you could say is also present in Catch-22. This book is not for everyone, and I don’t think I will ever be able to explain precisely what about it I like.