“All this happened, more or less.” I decided to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. I’d previously only read this one, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions and Timequake before this particular mission. While I’d thoroughly enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five previously, it was only on this re-read, following on from Vonnegut’s first 5 novels that I’ve come to really appreciate it as part of a body of work.
Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim. He is a survivor of the infamous World War 2 attack on Dresden, as was Vonnegut himself in February 1945. Back in the US, Pilgrim is an optometrist and is the only survivor of a plane crash. Billy insists he can travel through time; witnessing key moments of his life out of sequence. And after the crash, he reveals that he has spent time on the planet Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in their zoo, along with another human – an adult film star called Montana Wildhack. They are to mate. The aliens are to watch. The Tralfamadrians explain that they can see all of time at once, and that everything that happens, happens at the same time, so you can visit events at will.
Of course, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war novel. And how! But being anti-war, especially considering Vonnegut’s personal history, is only half the story. Most of the tale is the journey of Billy as he is captured by the Germans and sent to Dresden where he survives the firebombing in the titular slaughterhouse. The storytelling, wit and intelligence is what elevates this novel. It is even metafictional – the narrator clearly identifying himself at occasional key points. Of course, as Vonnegut experienced many of them himself, he must be the narrator, manipulating the reader and the events he portrays.
For me, Slaughterhouse Five opens with one of the best and most memorable lines in fiction. There is so much meaning to those 6 words. Autobiographical. Fiction. Metafiction. Satire. Horror. Science fiction. An indication of what’s to come. The books brings together many of Vonnegut’s ideas, phrases and characters. The most common, of course, is “so it goes” whenever some passes. A harrumph at destiny? The Tralfamadrians, of course, are fatalists by nature. Other familiar areas are Ilium, New York; displacement in time; the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout; the planet of Tralfamadore (first mentioned in The Sirens of Titan and then in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). And fairly blunt attacks on religion. Reoccurring characters include war veterans Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (from Mother Night) and Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and the time shifting Bertram Copeland Rumfoord (from The Sirens of Titan).
With all that in mind, Slaughterhouse Five is such an easy and enjoyable read. More than almost any other writer I’ve read (especially social satirists and science fiction authors), Vonnegut is a terrific storyteller. He understands his audience and he understands people. In the hands of any other author, some of the writing would seem ludicrous, especially in an anti-war novel (“Billy had liked Spot a lot, and Spot had liked him” sounds like it comes from a beginner’s reading book). However, it moments such as Billy watching the war film backwards that whack you over the head with poignancy and meaning, especially the moment describing the women who hide the materials taken from bombs in the earth so they’d “never hurt anyone every again”.
There might be some doubt, narrative-wise, that what Billy recounts is real. Are his encounters with the aliens and his ability to travel through time real, or the results of the trauma of war (and the plane crash)? Is this simply a device Vonnegut uses for storytelling? Is Vonnegut (as himself or as Kilgore Trout) an unreliable narrator? And if so, does that mean we aren’t meant to take the aliens and time-jumping as anything other than metaphor? I don’t think it matters. You can read it either way – real or all in Billy’s mind – and the book still wallops you in the brain.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five says plenty about the horror and humiliation and dehumanisation of war. Much of the plot that happens in Billy’s later life occurs while the Vietnam War is ongoing. Despite the undeniable horrors of Dresden, America in particular never learns. Billy says: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does”. A very bleak outlook indeed. According to the Tralfamadrians, everyone who has died and suffered terribly because of war, is still alive somewhere and always will be. Which is something, isn’t it?