Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces 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.
Review by Michael Connery
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a postmodern work with writing that is straightforward and unadorned in style and with a structure that is as blurred and fluid as the Tralfamadorian idea of time. The novel is set in Germany, in upstate New York, and on the foreign planet of Tralfamadore, and the author continually draws the reader’s attention to the fact that he or she is reading a book. With a peripheral first person narrator combined with third person omniscient perspective, authorial interjections, and a form and content that tangle around one another, the tale is experimental, absurd, and brilliant. An autobiography, a war drama, and science fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five is blunt, grim, ironic, and darkly humorous.
Slaughterhouse-Five follows clownish Billy Pilgrim from optometry school to the Battle of the Bulge, where he is captured by the Germans and eventually transported to a POW camp in an abandoned slaughterhouse in Dresden. Billy Pilgrim’s experience as a prisoner of war and survivor of the infamous, horrific, and long-classified firebombing of Dresden is an echo of that of the author’s. Upon the war’s end and liberation, Billy Pilgrim attempts to return to civilian life, marries, has a nervous breakdown, fathers two children, and survives both a plane crash and an alien abduction. The events of Pilgrim’s life and experiences are told in an extreme non-linear fashion that jumps in time and is posited as all happening simultaneously. Time, as his alien captors inform him, is but an illusion: separate, eternal, and happening in the same instance as every other moment.
With equal eloquence and madness, Vonnegut presents a narrative that is stripped down to action. The story is stark and sparse with very little description and an utter lack of sympathy toward emotion. Even so, Vonnegut’s most famous work is a heartrending glimpse into the mind of a man struggling to rebuild himself after the horrors of war. Free will is nonexistent, and people are continually trapped in life—by government edicts, by chains, by family, by social expectation. The character of Billy Pilgrim is a witness to the pain and drudge and horror of life. Unable to face that futility and helplessness, he escapes into the world of science fiction.
Slaughterhouse-Five is bitingly and unapologetically an anti-war novel, first published in 1969, when the public still felt the repercussions of WWII and were appalled by the war in Vietnam. The author himself was a man shaped and haunted by his experiences in war. Vonnegut posits that war is fought by fools and children and that righteous self-assurance and the arrogance of morality are dangerous and often spawns of war.
There are no heroes in this story, and the villains are those who romanticize and glorify violence. Slaughterhouse-Five explores the injustice of suffering and how cruelty is a side effect of war. Helplessness, disconnection, and confusion abound. “So it goes.”
Highly recommended for fans of postmodern, absurdist literature and for those interested in the artistic offshoots of WWII