Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that I’ve been told to read since I was in high school. In my sophomore year Honors English, we did outside reading assignments that we had to present to the class. I chose, to my lasting chagrin, to read 1984 by George Orwell, while others chose Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and others. Only one or two people picked Slaughterhouse-Five, but the book has stuck with me since then. Recently, a friend of mine began reading through many of the Vonnegut novels, and she was persistent in her attempts to persuade me to read it and other Vonnegut novels. Consequently, I chose it for my book club, not really knowing much about the novel, but rather wary of the it because I knew it was supposed to be harsh and cynical.
The novel opens with a narrator, ostensibly Vonnegut himself, telling of how he planned to put the novel together, to tell the story of the firebombing and destruction of Dresden at the end of World War II. He then moves on to relate the journey of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant. He is captured by the Germans, walked to a prison camp with British soldiers, then sold off as day laborers in a factory in Dresden, living in an unused slaughterhouse–number five.
Furthermore, the story jumps backward and forward in time. This is not merely a narrative technique, but a physical component of the story. In the 1960s, a flying saucer took up Billy Pilgrim and took him to Tralfamadore, where he was studied as though in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians see time in four dimensions–they are effectively outside of time, seeing all points of time at once. Billy has “come unstuck in time.” He can slide out of and into different places in time. These shifts generally come without warning, and could lead to a bit of confusion.
I believe that the Billy Pilgrim’s shifts in time and his Tralfamadoric excursions are caused by one of the following: Actual alien intervention, Billy’s slight insanity due to the horrific effects of the war (causing him to lose track of where he is in time, possibly a form of Alzheimer’s), or possibly that Billy Pilgrim died in Dresden and everything else is potential–fantasy of what might have been. Or maybe some combination of these things. Vonnegut does write science fiction, and the Tralfamadorians do appear in other works, so maybe that informs a particular interpretation.
I am more partial to the idea that Billy is mentally losing touch with reality. This might take another reading to prove it, but there are similarities in the storylines around the time shifts, elements of the two time periods that slightly mirror each other–possibly triggering the shifts, or just causing Billy to recollect what has happened in the past.
Absurdity pervades this novel. Due to a clerical error by the Red Cross, British POWs in a German prison camp are left with more food and supplies than their German captors, leading to a section of the novel similar reminiscent of Hogan’s Heroes. Billy walks through Germany and into Dresden wearing silver boots and a blue silk toga. Those are just a few examples, but many more exist. War seems a nonsensical business, which Vonnegut does his best to make clear. It is terrible, chaotic, and absurd at times. The complete destruction of Dresden itself, as Vonnegut states, was not necessary. The city was turned into a moonscape, a surreal place where the survivors wander about like waifs, dazed and purposeless.
Fatalism is also debated throughout. Pilgrim asserts that free will does not exist, and that there is no way to change a person’s future. This is one of the tools of the shifting in time. Billy seems to know his future–even his date of death, yet he does nothing to change it, as it cannot happen.
This is a significant installment in postmodern literature. It goes against the traditional notions of the romantic, glorious wartime tale. Billy Pilgrim is no Sergeant York. He is nearly an innocent, a blank canvas onto which reader can project himself, identifying with him, witnessing the horrors and absurdity of war and attempting to make something of it.
This is a good book. I would not necessarily read it for pleasure, but it raises some important notions that bear pondering. I may read some more Vonnegut, but I hear it gets a bit more trippy from this point.